Can alcohol be removed from wine by using alcohol dehydrogenase?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

Can alcohol be removed from wine by using alcohol dehydrogenase?

—Elahee, Mauritius

Dear Elahee,

Alcohol dehydrogenases (ADH) are a group of enzymes that break down alcohol into other compounds that can be removed from the human body. Our bodies create several types of this enzyme in our stomach and liver, and when we take a drink and ethanol enters our body, it encounters ADH, which converts toxic ethanol into acetaldehyde. The bad news is that acetaldehyde is also toxic, but the good news is that it’s quickly converted to acetate and other molecules that can be absorbed rather harmlessly by aldehyde dehydrogenase-2 (ALDH2). Even better, ALDH2 may be associated with some of wine's cardiovascular benefits.

Speaking of, if you read up on ALDH2 (and really, who wouldn’t?), you might see that its presence can vary. Some people have a genetic deficiency of the enzyme, meaning that they accumulate acetaldehyde, which can cause a red flush on their face (sometimes referred to as "Asian flush" or "glow"). Women also tend to have less of this enzyme per unit of body mass, which is one of the reasons that recommended alcohol allowances differ by gender.

It sounds like you’re asking if you could use ADH outside of our bodies to remove ethanol from wine. If you’re into theoretical chemistry, then … sort of? My chemistry professor friend tells me there is some experimental research out there looking at this process as a tool in the future. But for now there are a couple problems, starting with the fact that you can’t exactly go out and buy the enzyme. Even if you could, the enzyme works at the cellular level, in our body’s mitochondria, and not so well in a wineglass. Finally, there’s another molecule in the equation, a co-enzyme that’s found in living cells with the totally made-up-sounding name of nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide, which helps break the ethanol down completely. You’d need to add that to the mix as well, and my research indicates that this stuff is really bitter.

I’m sorry to say the science isn’t quite there yet.

—Dr. Vinny

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