The ingredient used to colour Peking duck can cut the risk of dying from heart disease by a third and cancer by two-thirds, scientists say.
Researchers looking at red yeast rice said the benefits of the Chinese food colouring even seemed to outstrip those of statins – the much vaunted cholesterol-lowering drugs.
Describing the effects as ‘ profound’, they said extract of the fermented rice could play an important part in improving heart health.
Taking the supplements also nearly halves the risk of a second heart attack and reduces the odds of cardiac surgery, they found.
The rice is fermented with the red yeast Monascus purpureus. It has been used in China for thousands of years as a food preservative, colourant and seasoning, and herbal medicine.
For the study, scientists tracked heart attack survivors at more than 60 hospitals in China.
They focused mainly on heart disease, but cancer deaths were also recorded. Each day, patients took capsules of a partially purified extract of the red yeast rice preparation Xuezhikang – XZK – or an inactive dummy supplement. Researchers compared the progress of the groups over five years. To their surprise, they found taking the supplements cut the odds of death from heart problems and cancer.
Those taking part experienced few side-effects from the supplements, the American Journal Of Cardiology reports.
Researcher Dr David Capuzzi, of Thomas Jefferson University in Pennsylvania, said the effects could not be explained by the ‘statin’ content of the extract alone.
‘My hope is that XZK becomes an important therapeutic agent to treat cardiovascular disorders and in the prevention of disease whether someone has had a heart attack or not,’ he added.
The researchers do not yet know how the extract works. And they cautioned against self-medication, saying supplements available at health food stores were an unknown quantity.
• Vitamin D may protect against heart attacks as well as keeping bones strong, claim U.S. researchers. Those with low blood levels of the sunshine vitamin were more likely to have heart attacks than those with higher levels, a study in the Archives Of Internal Medicine found.