Rice Wine and its Effects on the Body

Rice wine is a traditional alcoholic beverage in many parts of Asia. It is produced by microbial fermentation of steamed rice with yeast and water. Different versions of this drink exist and they are locally known by different names; for instance: sake in Japan, makgeolli or takju in Korea and brem in Bali. Although rice wine has been introduced to many other countries through trade and globalization, research into its characteristics and health benefits is still predominantly conducted in the regions of its origin. Moreover, the results are not often published in international journals, which can make accurate knowledge about rice wine and its effects on the body less accessible.

Rice Wine and its Effects on the Body | Sake

Effects on the Body — The Good and the Bad

When compared to traditional wine (made from grapes or other fruits), as well as beer, wine made from rice contains more alcohol. Its alcohol content can be in the range of 18% to 25%. In comparison, regular wine usually contains 10% to 20% alcohol, where beer ranges 4% to 8% alcohol. Therefore, it is natural to assume that drinking too much of this wine — or any other alcoholic beverage for that matter — might not be beneficial for the body. Moreover, because of rice wine’s higher alcohol content, the familiar side effects of alcohol — such as nausea, blurry vision, lost balance, lost muscle control and a hangover — might be felt earlier than consuming a similar portion of drink with less alcohol content.

However, there are also many documented health benefits of drinking rice wine. Nutritional analysis of Korean makgeolli has shown that despite the alcohol rice wine is a highly nutritious beverage that contains an abundance of essential amino acids, sugars and organic acids, as well as vitamins and minerals (Yang & Eun, 2011). Since rice wine is a fermented product, it is not surprising that the drink also contains many strains of lactic acid bacteria (LAB), which are often considered probiotic. A multidisciplinary group of researchers from Korea investigated 17 LABs that can be found in traditional Korean wine and assessed their probiotic potential. To be considered a ‘good’ probiotic, an organism needs to tolerate low stomach pH and bile acids, as well as be able to adhere to the intestines. Researchers identified one particular strain of LAB in rice wine that showed to be more resistant than others (Park et al., 2015). Their findings could potentially help the food industry produce higher quality beverages with true probiotic value.

Anti-cancer and Anti-bacterial Activity of Rice Wine

Scientists from the Korean Food Research Institute are also looking into the anti-cancer potential of makgeolli. They discovered that using dealcoholized rice wine could cause the death of gastric cancer cells in mice (AGS human gastric adenocarcinoma cells). Tumors in this study reduced in size and volume when animals were injected with a dosage of 500mg/kg of non-alcoholic makgeolli mixture for 7 weeks. This suggests that plant extracts used in the drink could have an anti-cancer effect, which needs to be examined further (Shin et al., 2015).

In China, research into the health benefits of rice wine also showed that this drink might have an antioxidant effect and help with the destruction of free radicals. Free radicals have previously been linked with the development of cancer and other health conditions. Moreover, scientists from the Jiangnan University suggested that polysaccharides found in Chinese rice wine could be connected with the beneficial activity of the immune system (Shen et al, 2014).

To add to the list of benefits, a research group from Taiwan showed that rice wine has an anti-bacterial effect, too. The group studied commercial rice wine extracts and observed antibacterial activity against gram-positive bacteria, such as such as Bacillus subtilis and Staphylococcus aureus, and gram-negative bacteria, such as Escherichia coli and Pseudomonas aeruginosa (Chang, Jang, Lin, & Duan, 2016).

Rice wine has also been shown to help improve the skin’s protective function. Experiments conducted in Korea showed that rice wine may be a potential protectant from UV-induced skin aging. When fibroblasts (cells of connective tissue) were treated with rice wine, the expression of procollagen increased (Seo et al., 2009). In addition, rice wine has also been linked to better blood circulation and enhanced body metabolism. Citric and lactic acids in rice wine help with food digestion. When food is properly digested, nutrients are better sorted out and transferred to the right body organs. Studies of Japanese rice wine, sake, also showed that the beverage might have an anti-colic effect. When sake was given orally to mice, they developed a protection against colitis (inflammation of the inner lining of the colon). This healing action has been connected with a certain peptide that is found in rice wine (Kiyono et al., 2016).

Negative Effects of Rice Wine Even for Some Non-drinkers

Although rice wine is purported to have many recognizable health benefits, medical experts also warn that using rice wine as a home remedy can sometimes have a detrimental effect. For instance, doctors from Chicago reported a case of a Korean woman who was brought to the hospital with skin burns. After discharge, her family poured rice wine over her wounds and the dressing, hoping that the wine made from rice would speed up her recovery. As a result, the woman suffered from infection and had to be re-admitted. Her skin was so damaged it had to be removed (Jorge, Kowal-Vern, Poulakidas, & Latenser, 2012).

Although traditional home remedies can often have a therapeutic value, this example shows that generalizations can be dangerous. Health benefits of rice wine should not be taken out of the context of scientific research. Uninformed applications can sometimes have a harmful effect, as seen in this example. Furthermore, and perhaps most important, many medical professionals believe that any potential benefits from the consumption of various alcoholic beverages is not worth the risks that are associated with ingesting ethanol.

Sources & further reading:

Chang, T., Jang, H., Lin, W., & Duan, P. (2016). Antioxidant and antimicrobial activities of commercial rice wine extracts of Taiwanese Allium fistulosum. Food Chemistry, 190724-729. doi:10.1016/j.foodchem.2015.06.019

Jorge, J., Kowal-Vern, A., Poulakidas, S. J., & Latenser, B. A. (2012). Rice wine intoxication in a nondrinker. Journal of Burn Care & Research, 33(6), e315. doi:10.1097/BCR.0b013e31824a57af

Kiyono, T., Wada, S., Ohta, R., Wada, E., Takagi, T., Naito, Y., & … Sato, K. (2016). Identification of pyroglutamyl peptides with anti-colitic activity in Japanese rice wine, sake, by oral administration in a mouse model. Journal of Functional Foods, 27612-621. doi:10.1016/j.jff.2016.10.014

Park, Y., Kim, M., Jung, D., Seo, D., Jung, J., Park, J., & … Park, C. (2015). Probiotic properties of lactic acid bacteria isolated from Korean rice wine Makgeolli. Food Science & Biotechnology, 24(5), 1761. doi:10.1007/s10068-015-0229-2

Seo, M., Chung, S., Choi, W., Seo, Y., Jung, S., Park, J., & … Park, C. (2009). Anti-aging effect of rice wine in cultured human fibroblasts and keratinocytes. Journal of Bioscience and Bioengineering, 107266-271. doi:10.1016/j.jbiosc.2008.11.016

Shen, C., Mao, J., Chen, Y., Meng, X., & Ji, Z. (2015). Extraction optimization of polysaccharides from Chinese rice wine from the Shaoxing region and evaluation of its immunity activities. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, 95(10), 1991-1996.

Shin, E., Kim, S., Kim, J., Ha, J., & Hwang, J. (2015). Dealcoholized Korean Rice Wine (Makgeolli) Exerts Potent Anti-Tumor Effect in AGS Human Gastric Adenocarcinoma Cells and Tumor Xenograft Mice. Journal of Microbiology and Biotechnology, 25(9), 1485-1492.

Yang, H., & Eun, J. (2011). Fermentation and sensory characteristics of Korean traditional fermented liquor (Makgeolli) added with citron (Citrus junos SIEB ex TANAKA) juice. Korean Journal of Food Science and Technology, 43(4), 438-445.