Policosanol is an increasingly popular food supplement, which has been promoted as a safe and effective way to reduce LDL levels and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). It is a mixture of phytochemicals extracted from sugar cane. Policosanol supplements are produced largely in Cuba and are currently sold in more than 40 countries mainly because of their supposed beneficial effects on blood lipids. However, nearly all the research showing policosanol lowers LDL have come from a single research group in Cuba.
A recent review article concluded that policosanol is as effective as statin drugs and much more effective than plant sterols/stanols for reducing LDL levels.1 According to this review, LDL levels drop an average of 25% after a few weeks of taking policosanol. If policosanols supplements derived from sugar cane are as effective as statin drugs for reducing LDL, and have no adverse side effects, as seen occasionally with statin drugs, these supplements would indeed deserve their growing popularity. However, a small study done in the Netherlands found no LDL lowering from policosanols derived from wheat germ.2
The first study done using sugarcane derived policosanol supplements supplied by the Cuban company that markets policosanol supplements worldwide failed to find any significant impact of policosanol supplements in doses up to 80mg per day on LDL. The study was a multi-center double-blind study of 143 patients with elevated blood lipids. The policosanol or placebo was taken for a total of 18 weeks. The authors conclude “Our results suggest that it [policosanol] is devoid of clinically relevant lipoprotein-lowering properties.”3
Bottom line: Despite a successful marketing campaign and questionable research done in Cuba, it appears policosanol is completely ineffective at lowering LDL. The marketing of policosanol with questionable research done in Cuba is reminiscent of shark cartilage, which once was hailed as useful for preventing and treating cancer based on dubious data produced by Cuban researchers.
By James J. Kenney, PhD, RD, FACN.
1 Pharmacotherapy. 2005;25:171-83
2 Metabolism. 2004;53:1309-14
3 JAMA. 2006;295:2262-9
Stephanie Ronco has been editing for Food and Health Communications since 2011. She graduated from Colorado College magna cum laude with distinction in Comparative Literature. She was elected a member of Phi Beta Kappa in 2008.