(Brandy, gin, rum, tequila, whiskey, vodka)
Energy value (calories per serving): Moderate to high
Saturated fat: None
Carbohydrates: None (except for cordials which contain added sugar)
Major vitamin contribution: None
Major mineral contribution: Phosphorus
About the Nutrients in This Food
Spirits are the clear liquids produced by distilling the fermented sugars of grains, fruit, or vegetables. The yeasts that metabolize these sugars and convert them into alcohol stop growing when the concentration of alcohol rises above 12–15 percent. In the United States, the proof of an alcoholic beverage is defined as twice its alcohol content by volume: a beverage with
20 percent alcohol by volume is 40 proof.
This is high enough for most wines, but not high enough for most whiskies, gins, vodkas, rums, brandies, and tequilas. To reach the concentra- tion of alcohol required in these beverages, the fermented sugars are heated and distilled. Ethyl alcohol (the alcohol in beer, wine, and spirits) boils at a lower temperature than water. When the fermented sugars are heated, the ethyl alcohol escapes from the distillation vat and condenses in tubes leading from the vat to a collection vessel. The clear liquid that collects in this vessel is called distilled spirits or, more technically, grain neutral spirits.
Gins, whiskies, cordials, and many vodkas are made with spirits
American whiskeys (which include bourbon, rye, and distilled from grains.
blended whiskeys) and Canadian, Irish, and Scotch whiskies are all made from spirits aged in wood barrels. They get their flavor from the grains and their color from the barrels. (Some whiskies are also colored with caramel.)
Vodka is made from spirits distilled and filtered to remove all flavor. By law, vodkas made in America must be made with spirits distilled from grains. Imported vodkas may be made with spirits distilled either from grains or potatoes and may contain additional flavoring agents such as citric acid or pepper. Aquavit, for example, is essentially vodka flavored with caraway seeds. Gin is a clear spirit flavored with an infusion of juniper berries and other herbs (botanicals). Cordials (also called liqueurs) and schnapps are flavored spirits; most are sweetened with added sugar. Some cordials contain cream.
Rum is made with spirits distilled from sugar cane (molasses). Tequila is made with spirits distilled from the blue agave plant. Brandies are made with spirits distilled from fruit. (Arma- gnac and cognac are distilled from fermented grapes, calvados and applejack from fermented apples, kirsch from fermented cherries, slivovitz from fermented plums.)
Unless they contain added sugar or cream, spirits have no nutrients other than alcohol. Unlike food, which has to be metabolized before your body can use it for energy, alcohol can be absorbed into the blood-stream directly from the gastrointestinal tract. Ethyl alcohol provides 7 calories per gram.
The Most Nutritious Way to Serve This Food
The USDA /Health and Human Services Dietary Guidelines for Americans defines one drink as 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine, or 1.25 ounces of distilled spirits, and “moderate drinking” as two drinks a day for a man, one drink a day for a woman.
Diets That May Restrict or Exclude This Food
Lactose-free diet (cream cordials made with cream or milk) Low-purine (antigout) diet
Buying This Food
Look for: Tightly sealed bottles stored out of direct sunlight, whose energy might disrupt the structure of molecules in the beverage and alter its flavor.
Choose spirits sold only by licensed dealers. Products sold in these stores are manufac- tured under the strict supervision of the federal government.
Storing This Food
Store sealed or opened bottles of spirits in a cool, dark cabinet.
Preparing This Food
All spirits except unflavored vodkas contain volatile molecules that give the beverage its characteristic taste and smell. Warming the liquid excites these molecules and intensifies the flavor and aroma, which is the reason we serve brandy in a round glass with a narrower top that captures the aromatic molecules as they rise toward the air when we warm the glass by holding it in our hands. Whiskies, too, though traditionally served with ice in America, will have a more intense flavor and aroma if served at room temperature.
What Happens When You Cook This Food
The heat of cooking evaporates the alcohol in spirits but leaves the flavoring intact. Like other alcoholic beverages, spirits should be added to a recipe near the end of the cooking time to preserve the flavor while cooking away any alcohol bite.
Alcohol is an acid. If you cook it in an aluminum or iron pot, it will combine with metal ions to form dark compounds that discolor the pot and the food you are cooking. Any recipe made with spirits should be prepared in an enameled, glass, or stainless-steel pot.
Medical Uses and/or Benefits
Reduced risk of heart attack. Data from the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Prevention Study 1, a 12-year survey of more than 1 million Americans in 25 states, shows that men who take one drink a day have a 21 percent lower risk of heart attack and a 22 percent lower risk of stroke than men who do not drink at all. Women who have up to one drink a day also reduce their risk of heart attack. Numerous later studies have confirmed these findings.
Lower cholesterol levels. Beverage alcohol decreases the body’s production and storage of low density lipoproteins (LDLs), the protein and fat particles that carry cholesterol into your arteries. As a result, people who drink moderately tend to have lower cholesterol levels and higher levels of high density lipoproteins (HDLs), the fat and protein particles that carry cholesterol out of the body. Numerous later studies have confirmed these findings.
Lower risk of stroke. In January 1999, the results of a 677-person study published by researchers at New York Presbyterian Hospital-Columbia University showed that moderate alcohol consumption reduces the risk of stroke due to a blood clot in the brain among older people (average age: 70). How alcohol prevents stroke is still unknown, but it is clear that moderate use is a key. Heavy drinkers (those who consume more than seven drinks a day) have a higher risk of stroke. People who once drank heavily, but cut their consumption to moderate levels, reduce their risk of stroke.
Stimulating the appetite. Alcoholic beverages stimulate the production of saliva and the gastric acids that cause the stomach contractions we call hunger pangs. Moderate amounts of alcoholic beverages, which may help stimulate appetite, are often prescribed for geriatric patients, convalescents, and people who do not have ulcers or other chronic gastric problems that might be exacerbated by the alcohol.
Dilation of blood vessels. Alcoholic beverages dilate the tiny blood vessels just under the skin, bringing blood up to the surface. That’s why moderate amounts of alcoholic beverages (0.2–1 gram per kilogram of body weight, or two ounces of whiskey for a 150-pound adult) temporarily warm the drinker. But the warm blood that flows up to the surface of the skin will cool down there, making you even colder when it circulates back into the center of your body. Then an alcohol flush will make you perspire, so you lose more heat. Excessive amounts of beverage alcohol may depress the mechanism that regulates body temperature.
Adverse Effects Associated with This Food
Alcoholism. Alcoholism is an addiction disease, the inability to control one’s alcohol consumption. It is a potentially life-threatening condition, with a higher risk of death by accident, suicide, malnutrition, or acute alcohol poisoning, a toxic reaction that kills by para- lyzing body organs, including the heart.
Fetal alcohol syndrome. Fetal alcohol syndrome is a specific pattern of birth defects—low birth weight, heart defects, facial malformations, learning disabilities, and mental retarda- tion—first recognized in a study of babies born to alcoholic women who consumed more than six drinks a day while pregnant. Subsequent research has found a consistent pattern of milder defects in babies born to women who drink three to four drinks a day or five drinks on any one occasion while pregnant. To date there is no evidence of a consistent pattern of birth defects in babies born to women who consume less than one drink a day while preg- nant, but two studies at Columbia University have suggested that as few as two drinks a week while pregnant may raise a woman’s risk of miscarriage. (One drink is 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine, or 1.25 ounces of distilled spirits.)
Increased risk of breast cancer. In 2008, scientists at the National Cancer Institute released data from a seven-year survey of more than 100,000 postmenopausal women showing that even moderate drinking (one to two drinks a day) may increase by 32 percent a woman’s risk of developing estrogen-receptor positive (ER+) and progesterone-receptor positive (PR+) breast cancer, tumors whose growth is stimulated by hormones. No such link was found between consuming alcohol and the risk of developing ER-/PR- tumors (not fueled by hor- mones). The finding applies to all types of alcohol: beer, wine, and distilled spirits.
Increased risk of oral cancer (cancer of the mouth and throat). Numerous studies confirm the A merican Cancer Societ y’s warn ing that men and women who consume more than t wo drinks a day are at higher risk of oral cancer than are nondrinkers or people who drink less.
Increased risk of cancer of the colon and rectum. In the mid-1990s, studies at the University of Oklahoma suggested that men who drink more than five beers a day are at increased risk of rectal cancer. Later studies suggested that men and women who are heavy beer or spirits drinkers (but not those who are heavy wine drinkers) have a higher risk of colorectal cancers. Further studies are required to confirm these findings.
Malnutrition. While moderate alcohol consumption stimulates appetite, alcohol abuses depresses it. In addition, an alcoholic may drink instead of eating. When an alcoholic does eat, excess alcohol in his/her body prevents absorption of nutrients and reduces the ability to synthesize new tissue.
Hangover. Alcohol is absorbed from the stomach and small intestine and carried by the bloodstream to the liver, where it is oxidized to acetaldehyde by alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH), the enzyme our bodies use every day to metabolize the alcohol we produce when we digest carbohydrates. The acetaldehyde is converted to acetyl coenzyme A and either eliminated from the body or used in the synthesis of cholesterol, fatty acids, and body tis- sues. Although individuals vary widely in their capacity to metabolize alcohol, an adult of average size can metabolize the alcohol in four ounces (120 ml) whiskey in approximately five to six hours. If he or she drinks more than that, the amount of alcohol in the body will exceed the available supply of ADH. The surplus, unmetabolized alcohol will pile up in the bloodstream, interfering with the liver’s metabolic functions. Since alcohol decreases the reabsorption of water from the kidneys and may inhibit the secretion of an antidiuretic hormone, the drinker will begin to urinate copiously, losing magnesium, calcium, and zinc but retaining uric acid, which is irritating. The level of lactic acid in the body will increase, making him or her feel tired and out of sorts; the acid-base balance will be out of kilter; the blood vessels in the head will swell and throb; and the stomach, its lining irritated by the alcohol, will ache. The ultimate result is a hangover whose symptoms will disappear only when enough time has passed to allow the body to marshal the ADH needed to metabolize the extra alcohol in the person’s blood.
Changes in body temperature. Alcohol dilates capillaries, tiny blood vessels just under the skin, producing a “flush” that temporarily warms the drinker. But drinking is not an effective way to stay warm in cold weather. Warm blood flowing up from the body core to the surface capillaries is quickly chilled, making you even colder when it circulates back into your organs. In addition, an alcohol flush triggers perspiration, further cooling your skin. Finally, very large amounts of alcohol may actually depress the mechanism that regulates body temperature.
Impotence. Excessive drinking decreases libido (sexual desire) and interferes with the ability to achieve or sustain an erection.
Migraine headache. Some alcoholic beverages contain chemicals that inhibit PST, an enzyme that breaks down certain alcohols in spirits so that they can be eliminated from the body. If they are not broken down by PST, these alcohols will build up in the bloodstream and may trigger a migraine headache. Gin and vodka appear to be the distilled spirits least likely to trigger headaches, brandy the most likely.
Acetaminophen (Tylenol, etc.). FDA recommends that people who regularly have three or more drinks a day consult a doctor before using acetaminophen. The alcohol/acetaminophen combination may cause liver failure.
Anti-alcohol abuse drugs (disulfiram [Antabuse]). Taken concurrently with alcohol, the anti- alcoholism drug disulfiram can cause flushing, nausea, a drop in blood pressure, breathing difficulty, and confusion. The severity of the symptoms, which may var y among individu- als, generally depends on the amount of alcohol consumed and the amount of disulfiram in the body.
Anticoagulants. Alcohol slows the body’s metabolism of anticoagulants (blood thinners), intensif ying the effect of the drugs and increasing the risk of side effects such as spontane- ous nosebleeds.
Antidepressants. Alcohol may strengthen the sedative effects of antidepressants.
Aspirin, ibuprofen, ketoprofen, naproxen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Like alco- hol, these analgesics irritate the lining of the stomach and may cause gastric bleeding. Com- bining the two intensifies the effect.
Insulin and oral hypoglycemics. Alcohol lowers blood sugar and interferes with the metabo- lism of oral antidiabetics; the combination may cause severe hypoglycemia.
Sedatives and other central nervous system depressants (tranquilizers, sleeping pills, antide- pressants, sinus and cold remedies, analgesics, and medication for motion sickness). Alcohol intensifies the sedative effects of these medications and, depending on the dose, may cause drowsiness, sedation, respiratory depression, coma, or death.
MAO inhibitors. Monoamine oxidase (M AO) inhibitors are drugs used as antidepressants or antihypertensives. They inhibit the action of natural enzymes that break down tyramine, a substance formed naturally when proteins are metabolized. Tyramine is a pressor amine, a chemical that constricts blood vessel and raises blood pressure. If you eat a food that contains tyramine while you are taking an M AO inhibitor, the pressor amine cannot be eliminated from your body and the result may be a hypertensive crisis (sustained elevated blood pressure). Brandy, a distilled spirit made from wine (which is fermented) contains tyramine. All other distilled spirits may be excluded from your diet when you are taking an M AO inhibitor because the spirits and the drug, which are both sedatives, may be hazard- ous in combination.