The science of alcohol in 5 Qs & As
We are all familiar with the immediate effects of alcohol on our body. Other than that, what do we really know about its properties and the physiological effects of alcohol consumption? Here are the answers! Who knows, you may even use this information to impress your friends at your next dinner party.
Alcohol, what is it exactly?
It’s a question of vocabulary. In our every day language, the word alcohol refers to different alcoholic bevereages such as beers, liquors, wines, spirits, etc. However, alcohol can also refer to the family of molecules whose functional group is –OH : this is to say, a rather long list of carbon atoms connected to an oxygen and hydrogen atom. The type of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages is ethyl alcohol or ethanol : in a single molecule of ethanol there are 2 carbon atoms. Note : other alcohols (methanol and butanol among others) are toxic and are not fit for human consumption!
How is alcohol made?
All alcoholic beverages share the common feature of being produced through the fermentation of plant-derived carbohydrate materials using yeasts. Their glucose (sugar) content is converted to alcohol (ethanol) and carbon dioxide by the yeast, which also imparts characteristic flavors and aromas to the beverage. Wine is derived from grapes, beer from wheat, vodka from potatoes, tequila from agave, rum from cane sugar, and the list goes on.
What does the alcohol % on the label mean?
Ethanol is a liquid, and every alcololic beverage contains a certain amount of ethanol. The alcohol (or ethanol) percentage of any given alcoholic beverage is simply the number of milliliters of pure ethanol present in 100 milliliters of that beverage. Let’s take 2 “standard” drink amounts as examples (http://educalcool.qc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/consommation-standard.pdf). To get 18 ml of ethanol (the equivalent of what is considered a standard drink), you must consume 360 ml or 12 oz. of beer that contains 5% alcohol. In the case of spirits, such as vodka which usually contains 40% alcohol, you only need to consume 45 ml or 1.5 oz. to obtain the same 18 ml of ethanol. (Eye-opening calculations!)
Read the labels carefully : some alcoholic beverages are more concentrated! In studying the labels, you will note that some fortified beers may contain as much alcohol as light wines (approximately 9%).
Where do the calories in alcohol come from?
The calories in alcoholic beverages come from 2 sources : ethanol and glucose (sugar). The glucose source includes the fruit juices and sugars added to mixed drinks or cocktails, as well as the non-fermented sugar residue (more or less present depending on the type of drink). General rule, spirits contain very little sugar residue compared to wine and beer, and even more so in the varieties that are on the sweeter side. Glucose (sugar) accounts for 4 calories per gram, whereas ethanol accounts for 7 calories per gram : almost double!
A standard size drink contains 100 to 200 calories : click here to see visual for details. The key word here is standard : nightclubs and bars have a tendancy of offering more generous portions (visualize that cocktail or beer served in a Mason jar), in which case the number of calories can easily be doubled!
Should I avoid alcohol?
Without going into details, excessive alcohol consumption has many negative consequences on the long term. We all know that alcoholism is a threat to the health of the individual. However, what about the occasional evening spent at your favorite watering hole? Well, for those watching their weight, it would be best to abstain or, at the very least, limit these sort of outings as much as possible. When you tally up the number of drinks consumed during those evenings spent « out on the town », that are often followed by a midnight snack, you can easily find yourself consuming an extra 1500 calories. Say bye bye to an entire week’s efforts of eating healthy!
How about that glass of wine with dinner? Suffice it to say that it is best to empty that bottle of wine at the pace of a glass per day over a period of 6 days than to empty it in one sitting. Among other benefits, a glass of wine per day may prove beneficial to your cardiovascular health.
To sum it up, if the caloric content of alcoholic beverages is not a factor, you can always apply the 2-3-4-0 rule. Women should not consume more than 2 drinks per day (or 3 on special occasions), men no more than 3 (or 4 on special occasions), with one day of total abstinence (0) per week.