Red Yeast Rice: It’s Only Legal When It Has No Active Ingredient

Red yeast rice (RYR) has long been a staple in traditional Chinese medicine and culinary practices, prized for its potential health benefits, including the ability to lower cholesterol levels. This fermented rice gets its unique properties from being cultivated with the mold Monascus purpureus, which imparts a characteristic reddish hue and contains naturally occurring compounds similar to lovastatin, a prescription cholesterol-lowering medication. The efficacy of RYR in reducing cholesterol is largely attributed to these compounds, which work by inhibiting the body’s cholesterol production.

In the United States, however, the landscape for red yeast rice supplements is notably different due to regulatory restrictions on lovastatin. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has mandated the removal of lovastatin from over-the-counter supplements, arguing that it transforms these supplements into unapproved drugs. This regulation has led to the development and sale of RYR products that lack significant levels of lovastatin, raising questions about their effectiveness in managing cholesterol.

Given this context, the logic behind purchasing red yeast rice for cholesterol management in the U.S. becomes increasingly unclear. Without the key component that mimics the action of clinically approved cholesterol-lowering drugs, consumers may not be getting the benefits they seek from such supplements. This introduction aims to explore the benefits of red yeast rice in lowering cholesterol and discuss why the absence of lovastatin in U.S. supplements may undermine the rationale for their use in cholesterol management.

What is Monocolin K?

Monacolin K is the active ingredient in red yeast rice responsible for cholesterol lowering. It is a compound that naturally occurs during the fermentation process of red yeast (Monascus purpureus) with rice. Monacolin K is chemically identical to lovastatin, a prescription cholesterol-lowering medication. Monacolin K lowers LDL (“bad cholesterol”) by inhibiting an enzyme involved in cholesterol production.

According to a document published by U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, National Institutes of Health,
red yeast rice supplements containing the active cholesterol-lowering ingredient (monacolin K), are not legal for sale in the US according to FDA. The following is an excerpt from the document:


Key Facts
—Some red yeast rice products contain substantial amounts of monacolin K, which is chemically identical to the active ingredient in the cholesterol-lowering drug lovastatin. These products may lower blood cholesterol levels and can cause the
same types of side effects and drug interactions as lovastatin.
—Other red yeast rice products contain little or no monacolin K. It is not known whether these products have any effect on blood cholesterol levels.
—Consumers have no way of knowing how much monacolin K is present in most red yeast rice products. The labels on these products usually state only the amount of red yeast rice that they contain, not the amount of monacolin K.
—The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has determined that red yeast rice products that contain more than trace amounts of monacolin K are unapproved new drugs and cannot be sold legally as dietary supplements.
—Some red yeast rice products contain a contaminant called citrinin, which can cause kidney failure.

Red Yeast Rice
Some red yeast rice products contain substances called monacolins, which are produced by the yeast. Monacolin K is chemically identical to the active ingredient in the cholesterol-lowering drug lovastatin, which is one of the drugs in the category known as statins. These drugs lower blood cholesterol levels by reducing the production of cholesterol by the liver.


The composition of red yeast rice products varies depending on the yeast strains and culture conditions used to manufacture them. The strains and conditions used to produce culinary red yeast rice differ from those used to produce products that are intended to lower cholesterol. Tests performed by the FDA indicate that the red yeast rice sold as a food product contains only traces of monacolin K or none at all.


Legal Status of Red Yeast Rice
In 1998, the FDA determined that a red yeast rice product that contained a substantial amount of monacolin K was an unapproved new drug, not a dietary supplement. On several occasions since then, the FDA has taken action against companies selling red yeast rice products that contain more than trace amounts of monacolin K, warning them that it is against the law to market these products as dietary supplements.

Despite the FDA actions, some red yeast rice products currently on the market in the United States may contain monacolin K. (Some products tested as recently as 2011 have been found to contain it in substantial amounts.) Other products may
contain little or none of this component. Consumers have no way of knowing how much monacolin K is present in most red yeast rice products, and therefore have no way of knowing whether a particular product is safe, effective, or legal. The labels on these products usually state only the amount of red yeast rice that they contain, not the amounts of monacolin K or other monacolins.

Safety: 36% of Products Contain Toxic Citrinin

When red yeast rice is fermented under conditions that aren’t meticulously monitored, there’s a risk of producing citrinin, a mycotoxin that poses significant health risks. Research has shown that citrinin can lead to kidney failure in animals used for experiments and cause genetic damage in human cells.

A 2011 study analyzing red yeast rice supplements available on the market found that nearly 36% (4 out of 11) of these products contained citrinin. This finding highlights the importance of strict quality control in the production of red yeast rice supplements to prevent the inclusion of harmful substances like citrinin.

To Sum It Up

In the United States, Red Yeast Rice supplements undergo strict regulation to ensure they do not contain monacolin K, the active ingredient chemically identical to the prescription drug lovastatin, known for its cholesterol-lowering effects. Without this key substance, Red Yeast Rice supplements are not useful for reducing cholesterol levels. This leads to a logical disconnect between consumer expectations and the actual benefits of the product.


This Article is Not a Substitute for Medical Advice

Dietary supplements are not designed to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The Supplement Sciences website seeks to provide comprehensive access to the most relevant supplement information along with convenient online ordering. We do not provide medical advice and cannot guarantee that every product suggested is completely without risk. Since each person is unique in their health history and medication use, it is important to discuss supplements with your personal physician. Specifically, pregnant women and individuals being treated for cancer or liver or kidney problems must consult their physician about every nutritional supplement they plan to take. People taking medications for the treatment of HIV or with a history of organ transplant must not take supplements without consulting with their physician.


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