For many adults, alcohol is a part of everyday life. And, if you do opt to drink…do you actually know what you’re consuming? Are some choices better than others? Here are a few things to consider as you make your selections.
There is significant evidence that alcohol use causes harm to brain cells. So, if a tenet of a healthy lifestyle is the avoidance of toxins, can you justify drinking alcoholic beverages? The answer may not be a simple yes or no. Just as with food choices, there is a continuum of options. Let’s belly up to the bar and take a look at some ways you can upgrade your wine, cocktail or beer, if that is the path you choose.
A communal drink, wine has been used since the earliest celebrations of the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper. In modern times, wine is seen as a companion to good food, and to many people it represents both relaxation and sensory pleasure. Wine is thought to act as an anticoagulant, meaning it eases blood flow and helps prevent clotting. It’s reputed to boost HDL or “good” cholesterol, and it may aid mental alertness into old age. Of course, all these benefits only come with moderate consumption. Excessive amounts of wine increase the likelihood of many health problems—including the ones it is alleged to prevent.
Many of us have committed the “Dirty Dozen” (12 of the most heavily sprayed conventional crops) to memory and work to avoid them. One of these unclean 12 is the grape. The majority of vineyards in the United States use chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. The thin skin of the grape does not offer much protection from the 35 different pesticides used as a standard in conventional vineyards. A number of these chemicals are suspected carcinogens.
There are several ways to select wine with fewer toxins. Look for these indicators on the label.
100% Organic wine is allowed to carry the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) seal, which indicates that the wine has been monitored throughout the production process, and is made from 100% organically grown ingredients. No pesticides, fungicides, herbicides or chemical fertilizers are allowed on the vines or in the soil.
Organic wine can also bear the USDA organic seal and indicates the wine has 95% organically grown ingredients. Both “100% Organic” and “Organic” can contain only naturally occurring sulfites, in less than 100 parts per million.
Made with Organic Grapes means the wine contains at least 70% organic ingredients. It may also contain artificial sulfites. It does not qualify for the USDA organic seal.
Many European wines are made from certified organic grapes, but the USDA doesn’t recognize overseas certification.
Distilled beverages that have at least 20% alcohol by volume and contain no added sugar are called spirits. Popular spirits include bourbon, brandy, gin, rum, tequila, vodka and whiskey. Purported health benefits of liquor include better cardiovascular health and the increase of HDL. Vodka also possesses antiseptic and anti-bacterial qualities, helps in disinfecting wounds and works as an effective cleaning agent in the home.
While all distilled spirits are clear when collected from their stills, letting the alcohol mature in wooden casks gives darker spirits their signature hue. The process also imparts flavor and a range of substances, known as congener that give alcoholic beverages their flavor. They are, essentially, impurities. Some types of congeners our bodies can’t actually process and will treat as a poison; the more congeners, the more likely a hangover will result.
Let’s be clear
Generally, the less flavored an alcoholic beverage is, the less fusel oils (a specific type of congener) that it has. Fusel oils contribute to alcohol hangovers. Clear liquors like vodka, for example, contain fewer impurities and have little taste. Spirits such as bourbon and dark rum have fuller flavors and more congeners.
Each time a batch goes through the distilling process, more and more congeners and impurities are removed. That’s why “cheap booze” is often said to be more hangover producing; it typically has been distilled fewer times. Organic spirits are available, so it’s now possible to have your favorite cocktail made with environmentally sensitive ingredients (although often at a premium price). Labeling regulations for organic distilled spirits are similar to those outlined for organic wine.
While all spirits are carb-, sugar-, and fat-free, some drink choices are more caloric than are others: The higher the alcohol content, the more calories. But you’ll also want to take into account what else is in your glass. Mixers can be loaded with sugar, such as soda or even tonic water. Twelve ounces of tonic contains 132 calories and a whopping 32 grams of sugar—about the same as a soda. Opt instead for a vodka and seltzer, or simply order your drink “neat” or “on the rocks.” When no sugary mixers are added, a major source of calories is eliminated.
Beer is one of the oldest beverages known to man. European monks originally brewed beer as a way to receive nourishment during religious fasts. Beer has B vitamins and significant amounts of magnesium and potassium. Moderate beer consumption has been said to help protect against heart disease and lower the risk of hypertension.
Sometimes called “liquid bread,” beer is commonly made from barley, wheat, rye and oats. People who have intolerance to gluten often react to proteins in the grains commonly used to make beer. Gluten-free beers are available which are brewed mainly from cereals such as buckwheat, corn, millet, rice and sorghum, which do not contain gluten.
Beer and a shot
The ingredients in beer are not required by law to be listed on the label, and manufacturers are not obligated to disclose the ingredients. Beer sold in the USA can, and often does, contain such unsavory elements as:
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
- High fructose corn syrup
- Propylene glycol (also found in anti-freeze)
- GMO sugars
- Sulfites and preservatives linked to allergies and asthma
- Food dyes made from petroleum, which have been linked to allergies, asthma and hyperactivity
- BPA (Bisphenol A is a component in many can liners and it may leach into the beer)
While organic domestic beer exists, it is not always easy to come by. On the upside, a larger market share is being taken over by craft breweries. Many unpasteurized, locally brewed craft beers contain complex carbohydrates and probiotics. Look for products that are unfiltered, unpasteurized and are made without preservatives, corn syrup or sweeteners.
Non-alcoholic beer usually contains less than 0.5% of alcohol and is intended for people who desire a product with little or no alcohol.