For over a thousand years, red yeast rice has graced Chinese medicine and a wide variety of Asian culinary delights. Polished, husked rice is fermented with a yeast called Monascus purpureus. The fungal growth results in deep, red-purple yeast-coated grains of rice that are used as a dietary supplement, as well as a coloring agent for certain foods.
In addition to being served as a side dish on its own, red yeast rice has been used throughout the centuries to give certain foods and wines a reddish hue. It also subtly enhances the flavor of food or beverages with a slightly earthy taste. Some of these red-colored foods may be familiar to you:
- Peking duck
- Char sui pork
- Pickled Tofu
- Red rice vinegar
- Rice cakes
Traditionally, red yeast rice was used by Chinese physicians and herbalists to treat diarrhea, blood circulation problems, indigestion and a variety of stomach complaints. Most recently, studies have shown that when used as a dietary supplement, red yeast rice taken in powdered form promotes cardiovascular health and also lowers problematic LDL cholesterol. In its powdered form, the rice is called Zhi Tai and Xue Zhi Kang as an extract after it has been processed using alcohol.
Why it Works to Lower Cholesterol
Red yeast contains monacolins, particularly monacolin K, that researchers feel may help stop cholesterol-creating enzymes in the human body. Chemically, this natural-occurring substance in the yeast is very similar to cholesterol-lowering lovastatin, a drug available only by prescription in the United States. It’s quite possible that other aspects of red yeast rice, such as the phytosterols and isovflavones it contains, may also be responsible for the cholesterol-inhibiting qualities of this particular rice. When you look at the statistics of how “bad” cholesterol affects men, women and children in the United States, you can see the value of this humble, yeast-encrusted rice in its various forms.
- 33.5% of all Americans have “bad” (LDL) cholesterol levels.
- Less than half of those adults receive treatment for the condition.
- High cholesterol levels increase have twice the risk of developing heart disease.
In Asia, people eat, on average, approximately 14-55 grams of red yeast rice in its natural form. Traditionally, Chinese physicians and herbalists suggest a dosage of 6000 to 9000 miligrams per day when red yeast rice is used as a dietary supplement. The Mayo Clinic recommends a daily dosage of 1200 miligrams, twice daily, of the concentrated yeast powder in capsule form.
As with any food or medication, some people may experience certain side effects when taking red yeast rice supplements. Here are a few to watch for:
- Weakness or achy muscles (A potential fatal condition exhibiting these symptoms can also result from taking prescription cholesterol-reducing medications. Achy muscles accompanied by general weakness or fatigue could indicate a serious problem that requires prompt medical attention. It is recommended that you stop taking red yeast rice supplements or prescription cholesterol drugs at once.)
- Pregnant women or nursing mothers should steer clear to taking the powdered supplements, as it could be dangerous to the unborn child or infant and toddlers.
Eating red yeast rice in all its forms certainly has proven health benefits. These health benefits were first reported during the Tang Dynasty in 800 AD and were written about in ancient Chinese medical documents that extolled the rice’s many virtues. When the supplements are taken properly, they can reduce the risk of heart disease by lowering “bad” cholesterol and increase blood circulation, all of which promote good cardiovascular health. Despite the rice’s many health advantages, the rich, earthy taste of the fermented delicacy will no doubt remain a highly sought-after culinary Asian delight for centuries to come.
Photo via FotoosVanRobin