Q. Does Reducol really lower cholesterol levels? Are there any side effects?
—Walter Fajardo, Boston
A. Reducol is the trade name for a patented blend of sterols and stanols—natural, fatlike compounds derived from the oils of coniferous trees and used in margarine spreads and supplements. Because sterols and stanols mimic cholesterol, they fool the body into thinking it has eaten too much of the lipid. This results in more cholesterol being passed through the intestines, which in turn means lower levels in the blood. The reduction is generally modest—10 to 15 percent with the recommended intake of two to three grams a day. But a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2003, by David Jenkins, MD, and colleagues, showed that sterols could be about as effective as the most popular anticholesterol drugs, statins, if they're part of an ultrastrict lipid-lowering diet.
The FDA has accorded Reducol "generally recognized as safe" status, and I am unaware of any reports showing adverse effects. (Statins, on the other hand, can cause liver toxicity, although they are recommended for most patients with very high cholesterol because a rigid diet like Jenkins's is too hard to follow.) There are, however, theoretical dangers of sterols and stanols: excessively low cholesterol—an essential compound in the right amounts—which could cause impaired libido, depression, and possibly increased susceptibility to infection; interference with the production of sex hormones like estrogen that are made from cholesterol; and depletion of fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, E, and K. In general, if you stick with trusted brands, I think taking Reducol is safe and reasonable.