Recently, researchers at the University of Singapore made headlines world wide when they created a wine made exclusively out of durian. The white wine has 6% alcohol, and will probably be approved for public consumption. This has a lot of people wondering, “Is that safe?”
Throughout Southeast Asia, from Indonesia to Vietnam, it is widely believed that the combination of durian and alcohol leads to severe indigestion, heartburn or even death. Everyone has a story about a neighbor or relative who passed away after they drank a few beers with their durian. There are even news reports of people dying after consuming durian and alcohol, like this 2009 article in the Jakarta Post.
But is it true?
So far, despite this widely held rumor, there have been only a handful of medical research studies on the effects of combining alcohol and durian. Of those, three were published in journals that appear not to exist anymore, effectively vanishing them from the face of the worldwide web. That leaves us with two studies about durian and alcohol. Two. That’s it. And one is from 1969.
I’d think that the scientists of Southeast Asia would be a little more curious about this issue, considering it involves an extremely popular fruit and DEATH. They could save a few lives, or at least liven up a few parties.
Here’s a quick summary of both studies (there should be sooo many more of these), plus our conclusions about whether or not durian and alcohol is a deadly mix.
Durian and Alcohol Study #1
The first study is “Durian and Alcohol: A Preliminary Report” by C.W. Ogle and Y.F. Teh. It’s a short and sweet, easy 3 page read.
Basically, the researchers gave groups of mice diluted ethyl alcohol and then fed the separated groups durian at 2 hour, 4 hours, and 6 hours intervals. Then they did another trial and reversed it: this time feeding durian first and serving alcohol later, at the same time intervals as before. One control group was fed only alcohol and one control group was fed only durian.
The effect of the durian and alcohol mix was determined by placing the drunken little mice on their backs and measuring how long it took them to right themselves. Researchers also noted how many mice fell asleep (a.k.a. passed out) in comparison to the control groups. I imagine this was hilarious, and would probably be the best experiment those little mice ever participated in if it weren’t for the use of intragastric feeding tubes.
After getting more than 200 mice completely smashed, the researchers determined that there was no difference in behavior between groups fed durian and alcohol and groups fed only alcohol. In both groups, the mice wobbled around, fell asleep, or struggled to right themselves. Only the control group fed only durian behaved no differently than other sober mice and probably did not have any fun at all.
Importantly, none of the mice died. The researchers concluded that combining durian and alcohol was not a problem and that whatever uncomfortable symptoms people experienced were probably due to the fact that durian is difficult to digest.
The problem is that nobody asked those little mice how they were feeling. Indigestion? Heart burn? Palpitations? Feelings of being hot? Was their blood pressure high? This would be important information, for reasons I’ll get to in a minute.
Durian and Alcohol Study #2
The other study is the one currently being referred to in media stories about durian wine. It was published by researchers at the University of Tsukuba in Japan in 2009 and involves a sulfur compound, or more importantly a sulfur drug called Disulfiram. Disulfiram was used in the 1950’s to treat chronic alcoholism. The drug effectively blocks the normal metabolism of alcohol, causing massive and immediate hangovers that developers hoped would make alcohol less enticing to addicts.
Researchers noticed that the symptoms reported by people who imbibe while under the influence of durian – facial flushing, heart palpitations, vomiting and nausea – are similar to symptoms of those who drink despite taking Disulfiram. They decided to investigate whether or not durian might have a similar compound.
The result is a very complicated study titled “Inhibition of Aldehyde Dehydrogenase Enzyme by Durian Fruit Extract.” If the title, let alone the following 10 pages of words like “diluent” make your eyes glaze over right away, don’t worry. The essence of the study is that durian does contain a sulfur compound called diethyl disulfide which may inhibit the metabolism of alcohol enough to cause the exaggerated hangover symptoms.
It’s an interesting study, and definitely provides one more reason not to drink alcohol. But has anyone ever died from a hangover? They might wish they could. Despite the study’s scientific technicality and general smarts, it doesn’t really answer the question about whether or not people can die from consuming durian and alcohol together.
Nobody knows whether the combination of durian and alcohol is a problem or not. There simply hasn’t been enough research. But despite concluding that it’s mind boggling how researchers in Southeast Asia have neglected this topic for so long, there are a couple of interesting things to point out about deaths related to durian.
The most important detail is that most people who die shortly after eating durian had pre-existing conditions of hypertension and diabetes and suffered cardiac arrest or heart attack. Some consumed alcohol or coca-cola as well, but many did not.
In most cases, the victim consumed a lot of durian. I mean a lot of durian. In 2009, a man in Thailand consumed nearly 5 Thai durians all by himself before meeting his end. Last August, a man in Mindanao was discovered face down on a table scattered with durian shells, having consumed an entire basket of the fruit in conjunction with coca-cola. And in 2012 a man in Sarawak died after enjoying an unspecified but large quantity of durian.
Remember, all had been diagnosed with hypertension already, and not because they loved to eat durian.
Now here’s where it gets interesting: durian temporarily raises the blood pressure. No one has ever established this in a clinical study, but everyone in Southeast Asia is aware that eating durian is often accompanied by a hot or “heaty” sensation. Others report facial flushing or pounding sensations after large durian meals, probably related to an elevated blood pressure.
It’s so well known that in the Philippines durian is sometimes used in hospitals to elevate the blood pressure of patients suffering from dengue fever.
Yet no one has ever done a study that either confirms or disproves the durian’s effect on blood pressure. Why is this, University of Singapore? Get your act together, lah!
It’s also a well established fact that alcohol can raise blood pressure, and not just over the long term. According to the mayoclinic, taking three drinks or more at one sitting can temporarily raise blood pressure a significant amount.
I would suggest (with absolutely no scientific backing whatsoever) that when someone already suffering from hypertension combines the blood pressure elevating powers of durian and alcohol it becomes too great for their heart and they die from a heart related problem. That’s my best guess. But then, people die from heart attacks all the time and it could just be coincidence.
Conclusion to the Conclusion
I recommend that durian-lovers suffering from hypertension or diabetes get their conditions under control through healthy lifestyle choices, and not give up on the King of Fruit. Just be a little bit careful.
For everyone else, I don’t think that mixing durian and alcohol is particularly deadly. Just uncomfortable. Personally, I would definitely give durian wine a try, probably with a little durian snack on the side.
But I still want to see some real clinical studies!
Have you ever mixed durian and alcohol? What happened?