Phytosterols and phytostanols and the hallmarks of cancer in model organisms: A systematic review and meta-analysis

Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2022;62(5):1145-1165. doi: 10.1080/10408398.2020.1835820. Epub 2020 Nov 25.


Phytosterols and phytostanols are natural products present in vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds, or added to consumer food products whose intake is inversely associated with incidence and prognosis of several cancers. Randomized cancer prevention trials in humans are unfeasible due to time and cost yet the cellular processes and signaling cascades that underpin anti-cancer effects of these phytochemicals have been explored extensively in vitro and in preclinical in vivo models. Here we have performed an original systematic review, meta-analysis, and qualitative interpretation of literature published up to June 2020. MEDLINE, Scopus, and hand-searching identified 408 unique records that were screened leading to 32 original articles that had investigated the effects of phytosterols or phytostanols on cancer biology in preclinical models. Data was extracted from 22 publications for meta-analysis. Phytosterols were most commonly studied and found to reduce primary and metastatic tumor burden in all cancer sites evaluated. Expression of pAKT, and markers of metastasis (alkaline phosphatase, matrix metalloproteases, epithelial to mesenchymal transcription factors, lung and brain colonization), angiogenesis (vascular endothelial growth factor, CD31), and proliferation (Ki67, proliferating cell nuclear antigen) were consistently reduced by phytosterol treatment in breast and colorectal cancer. Very high dose treatment (equivalent to 0.2-1 g/kg body weight not easily achievable through diet or supplementation in humans) was associated with adverse events including poor gut health and intestinal adenoma development. Phytosterols and phytostanols are already clinically recommended for cardiovascular disease risk reduction, and represent promising anti-cancer agents that could be delivered in clinic and to the general population at low cost, with a well understood safety profile, and now with a robust understanding of mechanism-of-action.

Keywords: Phytosterol; cancer; cancer hallmarks; molecular mechanism; neoplasm; phytostanol.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Drug Evaluation, Preclinical
  • Neoplasms* / drug therapy
  • Neoplasms* / prevention & control
  • Phytosterols* / pharmacology


  • Phytosterols