After decades of vegetarianism and strict abstinence, I started to pay attention to the research on the health benefits of moderate drinking. Could it be that a little alcohol was good for you? Was there a place for it in the healthy diet? Because there are no animal products in wine, I could see no conflict with vegan and vegetarianism. Let’s take a closer look.
It Started with Food Preservation
The story of alcohol reads like a novel about the intimate relationship between humans, carbohydrates, and yeasts. At the dawn of agriculture, around 10,000 years ago and several thousand years before people began living in the first mud and stone cities, people in small settlements in many parts of the world began to ferment foods and drinks.
Fermentation allowed them to preserve surplus grain and fruits by favoring yeasts over food-spoiling and disease-causing, bacteria. Since ethanol kills not only bacteria, including the one that causes cholera—a deadly disease carried in water—the natural fermentation process was a way to sterilize liquids and increase nutritional value. It made grains more nourishing because yeasts also produce nutrients including B vitamins and probiotics during fermentation. And of course, it got our ancestors buzzed.
Nutrition Combined With A Natural High
I love the Whole Foods Market in Austin. They got it right. You can sample fine wines—organic ones if that’s your preference—from all over the world, while surrounded by healthy food choices. But it’s just a copy of what indigenous people have done for thousands of years, and continue to do to this day.
In the Peruvian Andes, the Incas made aqha (pronounced “a-ha”) by fermenting quinoa, corn, and potatoes. In the Amazon jungles, the natives pound maniac into a paste that is masticated by women and spit into a wooden trough to ferment into masato, a milky gruel with an alcohol content of about 1%.
Chica, as these fermented brews are termed in Spanish, is still made and drunk by the indigenous people of the Andes and Amazon. And, in Southern Mexico, traditional indigenous people still drink pulque, a fermented beverage made from the maguey plant.
In Incan times, only prisoners drank water. Everyone else drank chica. Even now, in remote villages, this tradition carries on. Corn is first dried, and then sprouted in a dark corner of a special hut used for making chica. A starter is added to kick off the fermentation process and several days later, it’s ready.
The first day’s batch, when the brew is still mild and non-alcoholic, is reserved for children. By the third day, it’s ready for adults to drink. After a breakfast of hearty potato soup, the men head out to the fields. At 11:00, women show up with jars of chica, which is both nourishing and thirst quenching. And again at 4:00, they trudge back bringing more chica.
It must have seemed like magic to ancient brewers, but today we know that those first vats were colonized by Saccharomyces cerevisae, brewer’s yeast. This organism has been so important and well studied that we know its precise genetic code.
Brewer’s yeast has transformed many times as agriculture spread and different human cultures emerged. New forms and distinctive species evolved in association with beer and wine production in different regions. Every town and valley had its own wines and distinct beers. Eventually, this yeast—called baker’s yeast—changed enough that they helped dough to raise. Voila! French bread and wine.
Alcohol produces pleasurable feelings because of its ability to bind to GABA receptors in the brain. These receptors influence the activity of neurons, and when alcohol binds to them, all that pent-up activity is released, resulting in relaxation of our bodies, and our inhibitions. But too much alcohol, even in the low concentrations found in traditional brews, can make us uncoordinated, groggy, reckless, and aggressive.
It seems our taste for alcohol is more like our affection for caffeine or cocaine than for sugar, a relatively new addition to our many addictions. It all comes down to a group of chemicals called alkaloids.
Alkaloids in plants serve as growth stimulators and offer protection against attackers. When eaten by animals or humans, they serve as neurotransmitter modulators. With their own unique signaling system, they serve many functions in the body. In small amounts, alkaloids benefit humans, helping them adapt to harsh environmental conditions, like chewing coca leave by Andean Quechuas. However, the alkaloid content of coca leaves is low, between .25% and .77%. That’s enough to keep the cold away and adapt to high elevation, but you have to constantly chew lots of leaves.
Humans found they could concentrate alcohol and alkaloids by distillation. The production of cocaine from coca, for example, requires complex chemical processes that convert the raw material into a powerful drug. Distilling spirits from blue agave results in tequila. Brewing hops and barley makes beer. And making modern wine with 12 to 15% alcohol levels requires time and a sophisticated process of aging in barrels.
Health Benefits Come With A Price
Fermented alcoholic drinks have many health benefits. Wine is the most studied alcoholic drink, and the benefits seem to rest on one molecule: resveratrol. The effects of resveratrol include: anticancer, anti-inflammatory, blood sugar lowering, reducing cardiovascular, and anti-aging benefits.
Selected Health Benefits of Alcohol
- Promotes Longevity: Wine drinkers have a 34 percent lower mortality rate than beer or spirits drinkers according to a Finnish study of 2,468 men over a 29-year period, published in the Journals of Gerontology, 2007.
- Reduces Heart-Attack Risk: Moderate drinkers suffering from high blood pressure are 30 percent less likely to have a heart attack than nondrinkers according to a 16-year Harvard School of Public Health study of 11,711 men, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, 2007.
- Lowers Risk of Heart Disease: Red-wine tannins contain procyanidins, which protect against heart disease. Wines from Sardinia and southwest France have more procyanidins than other wines, according to a study at Queen Mary University in London, published in Nature, 2006.
- Reduces Risk of Type 2 Diabetes: Moderate drinkers have 30 percent less risk than nondrinkers of developing type 2 diabetes, according to research on 369,862 individuals studied over an average of 12 years each, at Amsterdam’s VU University Medical Center, published in Diabetes Care, 2005.
- Lowers Risk of Stroke: The possibility of suffering a blood clot–related stroke drops by about 50 percent in people who consume moderate amounts of alcohol, according to a Columbia University study of 3,176 individuals over an eight-year period, published in Stroke, 2006.
- Cuts Risk of Cataracts: Moderate drinkers are 32 percent less likely to get cataracts than nondrinkers; those who consume wine are 43 percent less likely to develop cataracts than those drinking mainly beer, according to a study of 1,379 individuals in Iceland, published in Nature, 2003.
- Cuts Risk of Colon Cancer: Moderate consumption of wine (especially red) cuts the risk of colon cancer by 45 percent, according to a Stony Brook University study of 2,291 individuals over a four-year period, published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology, 2005.
- Slows Brain Decline: Brain function declines at a markedly faster rate in nondrinkers than in moderate drinkers, according to a Columbia University study of 1,416 people, published in Neuroepidemiology, 2006.
Liquid Super Food or Bad Stuff
There seems to be a good argument for traditionally prepared wine and beer, as well as chica, as liquid super foods. When combined with a healthy, plant-based, natural diet and plenty of exercise, it seems to have a special health promoting magic.
However, there are a few things to watch out for. Without enough exercise, and when eating too much sugar and fats, alcohol contributes to weight gain. People with yeast and mold allergies can react to beer and wine. Those with allergies to wheat have to avoid beer and vodka made from wheat. The addictive nature of alkaloids can lead to dependency.
But, if you manage your alcohol intake, limiting yourself to a glass of natural organic beer or tradition red wine, it just might do you some good, and help you live a long relaxed life.
Next time you’re in Austin, you might find me at the wine bar, next to the seafood and fresh vegetables, thinking about what to write about next while counting the minutes I’m adding to my lifespan.