Blessed pulque, sweet woe, why remain so afar? Come, close!

Pulque bacteria balance intestinal flora
Pulque, a traditional alcoholic beverage made from fermented agave sap - Photo: File Photo/EL UNIVERSAL
Mexico City
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Alexander von Humboldt, a German scientist, visited Mexico in 1803 and among his observations regarding the country, he recognized the value of pulque (a traditional alcoholic beverage made from fermented agave sap), a curious drink that prolonged energy and favored gastric system functions. At the end of the century, the virtues of the traditional Mexican beverage were proved once again, in Puebla scurvy was successfully treated with pulque and more than 250 million liters were produced, and pulque became key in Mexico's economy.

In the mid-twentieth century, a more systematic study on pulque in the Mezquital Valley (Valle del Mezquital), reported that the traditional beverage contained vitamin C, Iron, and Riboflavin, among other substances. Probably pulque did not cure heartache but its nutrients revitalized the mood in different ways.

The peak of this traditional drink was diminished by the brewing industry that made up myths regarding its preparation process and gradually displacing pulque.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), alcohol consumption in Mexico is 7.2 liters per capita and Mexico is the sixth largest consumer of beer, with 64 liters per person annually. However, pulque consumption has now been revalued among some of the younger sectors of the population, while the findings in the laboratory offer new ways of approaching this beverage.

Adelfo Escalante Lozada, a researcher at the Department of Cell Engineering and Biocatalysis in the Institute of Biotechnology (Instituto de Biotecnología abbreviated IBt) of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México abbreviated UNAM), states that the scientists interested in pulque had to determine the type of organisms that were involved in its fermentation, besides bacteria producing yeast and ethanol, the fundamental organism in pulque was the lactic bacteria Leuconostoc mesenteroides.

During fermentation, the lactic bacteria uses sucrose present in mead to produce lactic acid and a polysaccharide associated with the development of pulque's typical viscosity. Throughout the history of the scientific investigation of the beverage, most of the research has focused on yeasts, not in the bacteria involved in its fermentation.

Thus, the scientific investigation carried out by IBt-UNAM researchers focuses on pulque bacteria. The researchers selected pulque from three regions: Aculco, State of Mexico; Tizayuca, Hidalgo; and Huitzilac, Morelos.

The vast majority of the bacteria identified are lactic, with the prevalence of Lactobacillus acidophilus, a relevant finding since this bacteria is commercially used for the preparation of beverages containing probiotics-foods that contain live bacteria that contribute to balance intestinal flora and boost the immune system.

The researchers found that some of the health benefits of pulque consumption were related to gastrointestinal conditions since pulque bacteria had at least the same level of resistance as Lactobacillus casei Shirota validating the recommendation that had come generation after generation based on experience: “Blessed pulque, sweet woe, why remain so afar? Come, close!"

However, Escalate Lozada emphasizes that it is important to remember that one thing is the beneficial effect of pulque bacteria and a completely different thing is to say that consuming pulque can be totally beneficial.

IBt-UNAM researchers envision the commercial development of a new generation of probiotics following the global trend of the so-called functional food development.