Why & how you must eat fermented rice?
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It’s simple, basic and desi.  Fermented rice is an integral part of the Indian diet for centuries. People from the rice eating states have their own dishes with fermented rice. In rural India, farmers start their day with overnight soaked leftover fermented rice. On the other hand idli, dosa, uttapam, selroti are popular breakfast items. No, the list does not end yet. People celebrate festivals with various types of pitha, haria, and other rice alcohol.

Fermented rice is there in all most every Indian culture irrespective of socioeconomic differences. This traditional food started getting scientific attention in the last two decades. Extensive research is being conducted worldwide.

By the way, do you know there are more than 5000 fermented foods consumed worldwide? Yes, you read it right! It’s FIVE THOUSAND. (1)

Rice fermentation can be of two types –

  • Acid fermentation (eg- idli, dosa, panta/ pokhal bhat, etc)  or,
  • Alcohol fermentation (fermented rice liquor – Haria, apong, jau, etc)

Here in this blog, we will discuss the health benefits of fermented rice as well as how many ways you can ensure its goodness in your daily diet.

Why & how you must eat fermented rice?1

7 Benefits of fermented rice –

Fermentation is probably the first food biotechnology that people have figured out. Fermentation is a process where we create a favorable condition so that microorganisms can grow over a food substrate. Generally, rice, wheat, pulse, fish, meat, fruits; vegetables are used as the substrate.

Sometimes you don’t need to add any culture or starter (active microorganism eg- yeast) to the substrate to initiate the process. Fermentation takes place spontaneously gathering bacteria from the air. This is what happens when you make the rice batter for idli, dosa, or even keep the leftover rice overnight. In some cases, you need to add the starter/ culture to encourage the growth of the microorganisms. Eg- rice alcohol.

The bacteria start growing to utilize the carbohydrate (sugar) of the food.  With time and controlled room temperature, the growth rate of microorganisms increase and bring many changes in food, like –

  • Nutritional changes – change in quantity and quality of nutrients and anti-nutritional factors
  • Functional changes – formation of many active compounds which provide multiple health benefits
  • Sensory changes – the colour, texture, aroma, taste of the food altered

Each of these three changes ensure multiple health benefits as follows –

Nutritional changes –

1.Rice carbohydrate become available and easily digestible –

Rice contains approx 70% carbohydrates. Starch (the carbohydrate) in rice favors the growth of microbes.  (3) These microbes either come from nature spontaneously or by adding a culture. These microbes start creating metabolites and enzymes which further encourage the growth of the microbes and prevent the growth of the pathogens (a microorganism that may cause disease). Most common microorganism developed in rice is lactic acid bacteria (LAB), lactobacilli, bifidobacteria, yeast, and molds.  (4)

These lactic acid-producing bacteria produce glycoside hydrolase enzyme which converts the polysaccharide or indigestible form of complex carbohydrate into its simpler form.  The yeast and molds help to break down the starch into maltose and glucose by producing amylolytic (carbohydrate splitting) enzymes.

Therefore the form of carbohydrates in fermented rice turned into an easily digestible form and become light on the stomach.  Research shows that the carbohydrate content of rice gets reduced after fermentation.  (2)

Why & how you must eat fermented rice?2

2. Increase the protein and reduce the fat content

Lactic acid bacteria present in rice during fermentation enhance the concentration of essential amino acid. (2) On the other hand, yeast present in fermented rice releases proteolytic (protein breaking) enzymes which increase protein availability.

Fermentation reduces the fat content in rice. The microorganisms produce lipolytic (fat splitting) enzyme which breaks down the fat into small chain fatty acids and becomes more available for absorption.

3. Fermentation improve the fibre, vitamins and mineral content of the rice

Isn’t this sound like dream come true? Yes, the study shows the fiber and micronutrient content increase to many folds after fermentation.

The complex fiber and micronutrients get released from their bind form and become more available for absorption. Vitamin B1, b2, folic acid, vitamin C, A, E-content increased. Bioavailability of zinc, iron, and calcium improved. In addition, it also boosts the good gut bacteria to synthesize vitamin B12 and vitamin K. (1)

Table 1 : How fermentation change the nutritive value of white rice flour – (2)

 Non fermentedFermented
Energy (Kcal/g)130134
Carbohydrate (g)2827.1
Protein (g)5.97.6
Fat (g)0.30.23
Fiber (g)0.32.46
Calcium (mg)104120

4. Reduce the anti-nutritional factors

Rice contains anti-nutritional factors like lectin, trypsin inhibitors, phytate, etc which inhibits the absorption of micronutrients in our body. Fermentation helps to reduce these anti-nutritional factors and as mentioned earlier, improve the availability of micronutrients like calcium, iron, etc. (1)

Why & how you must eat fermented rice?3

Functional changes-

5. Fermentation improve your gut health

Once you eat sugar or any ultra-processed food like biscuits, instant noodles, pasta, bhujia, etc.,  it not only gives you empty-calorie, sugar, and salt but also encourages the growth of bad bacteria which thrive on the sugar in the gut. Fermented rice just does the opposite.

Fermented rice contains multistrain probiotics, which create a favorable environment for native gut bacteria and prevent the growth of pathogens (disease-producing microorganisms). This keeps the gut microbiome healthy and reduces inflammation. (1)

6.Improve epithelial lining and boost immunity –

Regular consumption of fermented rice helps to improve your gut health.  The good bacteria of your gut helps in proper digestion, absorption, produce different metabolites like short-chain fatty acids (butyrate) which gives a positive effect on your epithelial lining of the gastrointestinal tract and also helps to improve immunity.(5), (6)

7. Fermented rice as a functional food

You must be thinking what is functional food, right?

A food become functional food when –

  • the element which may cause health hazard in the food is eliminated or replaced, and/or,
  • the concentration of any present nutrient increases, and/ or,
  • any component which has a beneficial effect get added to the food and/ or,
  • bioavailability/ stability of the food improved (7)

Fermented rice is a functional food for many reasons. After fermentation, rice gets enriched with various antimicrobial, antioxidant substances, metabolites like phenolics, flavons, vitamin E, phytosterol, linoleic acid, anthocyanins, proanthocyanins etc. (8) (9)

These body-friendly bacteria play an important role in reducing cholesterol, improve peristalsis, transit time and prevent diarrhea.  Regular consumption of fermented rice also helps to takes care the lactose intolerance.  Fermented rice has the property to suppress cancer of the colon, liver, stomach, bladder, and esophagus. (10), (11)

Why & how you must eat fermented rice?4

Sensory changes –

8. Add variety and reduce cooking time –

When rice gets fermented, it may involve acidic fermentation or, alcoholic fermentation, or both. Generally, we do some pre-treatment of rice like soaking, grinding, or boiling which relaxes the tight starch structure of the rice grain and slowly dilutes the antinutritional factors.

When we make the rice batter with or without dal and allow fermenting, carbon-di-oxide and other gases start forming inside the batter. This brings changes in the texture. Food becomes soft and spongy. The release of metabolites like glycosides, esters, fusel alcohol, acids, etc brings a change in the taste and aroma of the fermented rice. (1)

Rice fermentation does not only bring changes in the sensory attributes like- texture, taste, aroma, etc but also significantly reduces the cooking time.

How to use fermented rice in the Indian diet?

As mentioned earlier, fermented rice is a part of the Indian diet for centuries. All most every community has its own time-tested recipe of fermented rice. Two types of fermentation generally take place on rice –

  1. Acid fermentation – Here yeast and bacteria use rice starch and sugar to produce lactic acid and other metabolites.
  2. Alcohol fermentation – Here generally yeast or bacteria or any starter/ culture is added to the rice where the microorganism use starch and sugar of the rice to produce ethanol and carbon dioxide.

In both types of fermentation generally room temperature is maintained for a specific time. Sometimes the choice of the container also makes a difference in the outcome of the final product.

Why & how you must eat fermented rice?9

Fermented rice as food –

Table 2: Fermented rice dishes (acid fermentation) popular in various part of India and their health benefits – (1)

Fermented  Rice itemWhat is it?Where it is popular?Main ingredientFermentation timeBeneficial for
IdliSavoury rice cakeAcross IndiaRice, Urad dal – 4:18-12 hrsWeight loss,  high BP, heart disease, constipation (12)(1)
DosaCrispy flat pancakeAcross IndiaRice, Urad dal – 2:18-12 hrsPre diabetes, diabetes, Rheumatoid arthritis, neural disorder, gluten intolerance (12)(13)
UttapamThick slightly crisp pancakeSouth IndiaRice, Urad dal – 3:15-6 hrsPre diabetes, diabetes, reduce cholesterol, heart disease, weight loss  (14).
DhoklaSoft, spongy, rice cakeSouth  & West IndiaRice, Urad dal/ chana dal – 4:15-8 hrsPre diabetes, diabetes, reduce cholesterol, heart disease, weight loss (15), (16)
Appam/ ChitouFlat , thin pancakeKerala, OdishaRice, Urad dal5-6 hrs Heathy snack (17)
PithaRice pancake with sweet/ savory fillingBengal, Odisha, Jharkhand, BiharRice, Urad dal8-12 hrsFestive food
Adai & VadaFluffy donutSouth IndiaRice, chana dal, moong dal, tur dal, urad dal5-8 hrsAdults and children as healthy snack  (18)
SelrotiSpongy rice breadHill area – Himachal Pradesh, Darjeeling, Sikkim, Nepal, BhutanRice, wheat flour (3:1), sugar, butter/ fresh cream3-4 hrsProtecting dyslipidemia, cardiac disorder (21)
AmbeliSlurry drinkCentral IndiaRice, ragi, buttermilk14-16 hrsAdults and children for containing easily digestable protein (12)(19)
Sour rice/ Panta bhat/ pokhalo/ Pakhala/ Pazhaya Soru/ Pazhaya sadamOvernight left cooked riceBengal, Odisha, Assam, Chattisgarh, Tamil NaduRice, Curd/ Buttermilk is optional8-14  hrsRestore healthy microbes, good for  duodenal ulcers, infectious ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, candida infection, celiac disease, etc. (17), (22)
BabruFlat rice breadLahaul, Spiti in Himachal PradeshRice Flour3-4 hrsImprove digestibility  (20), (19)
SezSlurry cooked rice – probably a mix  of acid & alcohol fermentationHimachal PradeshRice, use a starter called balam. Keep the mixture in earthen pot & kept in darkMinimum 24 hrs – Festive food
Why & how you must eat fermented rice?6

Easiest way to add prebiotic and probiotic in diet –

Try sour rice. It needs no cooking skills. Take some extra rice in a container (preferably earthen pot).  Add some drinking water. Make sure the rice is soaked in water.  Put the lid on. Leave it overnight at room temperature. Next day morning eat the rice (at least 2-3 spoons) along with the water. You may feel like adding some lemon juice, salt, onion, green chili with it. Some may use curd or buttermilk too.  Go by your tradition.

Fermented rice as beverages –

Table 2: Fermented rice beverages (alcohol fermentation) popular in various part of India and their health benefits – (1)

Fermented  Rice itemWhere it is popular?Main ingredient & starterFermentation timeAlcohol percentageBeneficial for
HariaBengal, Jharkhand, OdishaLow grade boiled scorched
Bhakhar (Microbes+ Plant residue)
3-5 days – Keep the mixture in earthen pot & kept in dark, dilute with water, sieve and serve3-4% v/v    Protect from dysentery diarrhea, amebiasis,
acidity. Rich in antioxidants   (23), (24), (25)
ApongNorth east IndiaRice, ash of paddy husk & straw
Ipoh or epop (plant parts + old ferments)
20 days7.5 – 18.5%  preventing formation of kidney stone (26), (27)
JauNorth east IndiaCooked boiled rice   Amao or angkur (microbes + plant parts)3-5 days18% v/vkeeps the body relaxed and may prevent jaundice and urinary disorders (26)
JudinaNorth east IndiaGlutinous variety of rice   Umhu or humao (rice + plant parts)3-4 days16% v/vIt has anti-inflammatory, anti-allergic, antioxidant, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-spasmodic, hypolipidemic, neuroprotective, anti-diabetic
hepatoprotective,  hypotensive, and antiaging, potentialities  (29) (30)
ZuthoNagalandRice flour  
Khekhrii or grist (dust of sprouted unhulled rice)
2-3 days5% v/vboost immunity, control insulin level, , prevent loss of appetite, lower LDL level, helps in wound healing, and prevent infection  (26) (31)
Bhaati JaanrNorth east IndiaGlutinous rice  
Marcha (rice dust + plant parts + old marcha)
2-8 days5.9% v/vfor sick & postnatal women to regain physical strength (28)
Rice JannUttaranchal & Himachal PradeshCooled boiled Rice     Balam or balma (microbes + plant parts)6-10 months10% V/Venergy rich refreshing drink and known to provide protection against cold (31)
Why & how you must eat fermented rice?7

Caution –

  1. Be aware of the difference between food spoilage and fermentation

The difference is very basic. When food gets spoiled, a growth of unwanted pathogens makes the food off-flavor, off-taste, and off-texture. Sometimes these pathogens may create serious health hazards like severe diarrhea, vomiting, stomach ache, headache, etc. So stay alert. Any type of change from usual sensory attributes should be taken seriously. If needed don’t think much to discard the food in total.

  • Fermented rice foods and beverages contain a high level of histamine (an organic nitrogenous compound). People having histamine intolerance should avoid fermented foods and beverages.
  • Fermented foods are also rich in potassium. Therefore patients suffering from chronic kidney disorder and not on dialysis should also avoid fermented foods and beverages.

Bottom line

Fermented rice is one of the best functional food in the regular Indian diet. It is healthy for most people. So feel free to add the fermented rice dish as per your tradition. Fix your dose of natural probiotic and prebiotic ensuring fermented rice in your daily diet. Start taking your dosa, idli, dhokla, or even panta bhat seriously.  You will be fine.

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Dr. Soma Chakrabarty is based in Hyderabad. She has 15 yrs of working experience in nutrition. She guides people to modify eating behavior and achieve goals for wellness. She believes in a practical diet that helps people to live rather than survive.

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  • Arun Kulkarni , 15th July 2022 @ 6:57 pm

    Thank you Somaji for providing us lot of information on “ancient wisdom” . I am a microbiologist. Can you provide me few published peer-reviewed articles on the bacterial profile of overnight-fermend cooked rice?

    Best Regards.

  • Karnan.p , 21st October 2022 @ 7:02 pm

    Thanks for posting this article about fermented rice

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