To Your Health

How is "black vinegar" different from regular vinegar?

Q. How is "black vinegar" different from regular vinegar? Is there any truth to the claim that it improves energy level, mental concentration, and fat metabolism? If so, how does it work?

A. Black vinegar is an Oriental condiment made from white rice, somewhat similar to the balsamic vinegar made from grapes. It varies in quality in the same way that balsamic vinegars vary. The better black vinegars are aged for several years and display a complex, smoky depth of flavor. Drinking this rich but mild vinegar daily for its health benefits has become increasingly popular, especially in China and Japan, where it is known by a bewildering array of names, both because of the numerous regional dialects in these countries and because of the inconsistencies in translating these words into English.

Black vinegar can be made from rice, the same starting material as sake, or it can be made from millet, creating a product with a mellower flavor known as awamori. The fermentation process is different from wine-making, in which the sugar in grape juice is converted to alcohol. Fermentation of rice first requires the conversion of starch to sugar. In addition to yeast, a unique mold with the official scientific name of Aspergillus oryzae is used. The rice is deliberately infected with this mold to generate what is known as koji. The mold produces several enzymes as it grows, and these enzymes break down the starches in rice into simple sugars that can be fermented by the yeast.

The secret to obtaining good black vinegar, or good sake, is in the rice mash, known as moromi. Steamed white rice is mixed with yeast, water, and a "seed mash," or starter koji, then left to ferment for about two weeks. Long before the days of thermometers, hydrometers, and barometers, Asian brewers relied entirely on their senses to judge the progress of a fermenting tank. They might not have known the names of the organisms involved or the metabolic processes going on, but experience and intuition told them how to interpret what they saw, tasted, and smelled. The end product was the formation of a rich, full-flavored, and healthful condiment.

Until recently the claims that drinking vinegar of any sort could have health benefits were dismissed as unfounded, but those notions are changing. Black vinegar is rich in citric acid, one of several organic acids present in our bodies. Regular vinegar is mostly acetic acid, and black vinegar has some of that also, but citric acid is the core of the "citric acid cycle." The citric acid cycle is one of the three major metabolic pathways that produce energy from the food we eat. Organic acids such as citric acid and malic acid (found in apple cider vinegar) can give a boost to the citric acid cycle, resulting in an increase in energy production. Body systems that require a lot of energy, such as the brain and the immune system, are benefited most.

Furthermore, a 2004 article from the scientific journal BioFactors reports that not only the vinegar but also the moromi, or mash, has antitumor activity. Mixing moromi, as little as three parts per thousand, in the food of mice that are genetically prone to develop tumors significantly reduced the size of the tumors and increased their life span.

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