DEAR DR. BLONZ: A nutritionist doctor suggested a commercial baking yeast (Red Star Yeast) to lower my cholesterol. I have not wanted to go on statins, and was happy to try this widely available product. I know that everything has a side effect, and was hoping that you could discuss the side effects and efficacy of this choice. I am concerned, in particular, by the fact that I am experiencing bloating. -- S.P., San Jose, California
DEAR S.P.: The commercial baking yeast you mention is NOT associated with lowering elevated blood cholesterol levels, and is probably not the “yeast” you had been told to take. Let me explain.
Yeasts are single-cell microscopic organisms that can grow with or without oxygen. The common baking yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) is an active yeast that uses oxygen and consumes carbohydrates (flour and simple sugars), creating energy for growth and producing carbon dioxide as a byproduct. The addition of small amounts of the appropriate yeast to baked goods results in gas production, which causes the food to rise during the baking process. If this is what you are taking, that is very likely the cause of the bloating you are experiencing.
Other types of active yeasts are used in beer brewing and winemaking. There are subtle differences. Such yeasts can grow without oxygen, which causes the organisms to produce alcohol as a byproduct. In a carefully controlled process, the gas that is produced can be captured to make beer and sparkling wines.
Brewer’s yeast, however, is an inactive yeast that is the same organism. It is sold as a dietary supplement and can be a source of certain nutrients, especially the B vitamins. There are also nutritional yeasts, such as torula yeast and whey yeast, which are organisms cultivated specifically for use as nutritional supplements. Vegemite and Marmite are yeast extracts sold as nutrient-rich dietary supplements.
I don’t know the credentials of this individual, but I am wondering if they might have actually recommended “red yeast rice.” Different from the above, this is a rice product that has been fermented with the yeast organism Monascus purpureus, also called “red yeast.” This yeast organism produces monacolin K, a substance that is associated with an ability to decrease cholesterol production by the human body. It does this by slowing down the activity of a key liver enzyme involved in cholesterol synthesis.
Be advised that the monacolin K in red yeast rice is actually a statin. It is the same one found in lovastatin, a commonly prescribed drug for high cholesterol. It can be effective when taken as prescribed by your physician. As with other statins, there can be side effects and interactions with other medications. There are also issues about taking certain statin substances along with grapefruit juice (see tinyurl.com/ybasfccf). Read more about red yeast rice and monacolin K (lovastatin) at tinyurl.com/ycbkw7nu.
Red yeast rice is sold as a dietary supplement, and there may be issues of quality control; seek assurances that all products, and every pill, has the same level of active ingredients. It is also essential to inform your health professionals if this is something that you are taking or considering.
Send questions to: “On Nutrition,” Ed Blonz, c/o Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.