Monday, July 21, 2008

What alcohol do in your mouth and stomach?

Alcohol is an astringent; it coagulates proteins on the surface of the lining of your mouth to make it “pucker.” Some alcohol is absorbed through the lining of your mouth and throat, but most of the alcohol you drink spills into your stomach, where an enzyme called gastric alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) begins to metabolize (digest) it.
How much alcohol dehydrogenase your body churns out is influenced by your ethnicity and your gender. For example, Asians, Native Americans, and Inuits appear to secrete less alcohol dehydrogenase than do most Caucasians, and the average woman (regardless of her ethnicity) makes less ADH than the average man does. As a result, more unmetabolized alcohol flows from their tummies into their bloodstreams, and they’re likely to become tipsy on smaller amounts of alcohol than an average Caucasian male would need to drink. While you ponder that, the unmetabolized alcohol is flowing through your stomach walls into your bloodstream and on to your small intestine.

How Much Alcohol Is in That Bottle?

No alcohol beverage is 100 percent alcohol. It’s alcohol plus water, and — if it’s a wine or beer — some residue of the foods from which it was made. The label on every bottle of wine and spirits shows the alcohol content as alcohol by volume (ABV). (For reasons too complicated to discuss in fewer than, say, 50 pages, beer containers may carry this information, but United States law doesn’t require it.)
ABV measures the amount of alcohol as a percentage of all the liquid in the container. For example, if your container holds 10 ounces of liquid and 1 ounce of that is alcohol, the product is 10 percent ABV — the alcohol content divided by the total amount of liquid.
Proof — an older term that describes alcohol content —is two times the ABV. For example, an alcohol beverage that is 10 percent alcohol by volume is 20 proof.
By the way, right now, alcohol beverages are the only entries in the food and drink market sold without a Nutrition Facts label. The National Consumers League and the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest are petitioning the Food and Drug Administration to create an ingredients label for alcohol beverages. The label would show the ingredients, the number of standard servings in the container, and the alcohol content and calorie count per serving so you can compare products — and control what you drink. Smart. To see the proposed label, visit

The foods used to make beverage alcohol

Beverage alcohol can be made from virtually any carbohydrate food. The foods most commonly used are cereal grains, fruit, honey, molasses, or potatoes. All produce alcohol, but the alcohols have slightly different flavors and colors.
On its own, alcohol provides energy (7 calories per gram) but no nutrients, so distilled spirits, such as whiskey or plain, unflavored vodka serve up nothing but calories. Beer, wine, cider, and other fermented beverages, such as kumiss (fermented milk), contain some of the food from which they were made, so they contain small amounts of proteins and carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals.

Distilled alcohol products

The second way to make an alcohol beverage is through distillation.
As with fermentation, yeasts are added to foods to make alcohol from sugars. But yeasts can’t thrive in a place where the concentration of alcohol is higher than 20 percent. To concentrate the alcohol and separate it from the rest of the ingredients in the fermented liquid, distillers pour the fermented liquid into a still, a large vat with a wide column-like tube on top. The still is heated so that the alcohol, which boils at a lower temperature than everything else in the vat, turns to vapor, which rises through the column on top of the still, to be collected in containers where it condenses back into a liquid. This alcohol, called neutral spirits, is the base for the alcohol beverages called spirits or distilled spirits: gin, rum, tequila, whiskey, and vodka. Brandy is a special product, a spirit distilled from wine. Fortified wines such as Port and Sherry are wines with spirits added.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Fermented alcohol products

Fermentation is a simple process in which yeasts or bacteria are added to carbohydrate foods such as corn, potatoes, rice, or wheat, which are used as starting material. The yeasts digest the sugars in the food, leaving liquid (alcohol); the liquid is filtered to remove the solids, and water is usually added to dilute the alcohol, producing — voilĂ  — an alcohol beverage. Beer is made this way. So is wine. Kumiss, a fermented milk product, is slightly different because it’s made by adding yeasts and friendly bacteria called lactobacilli (lacto = milk) to mare’s milk. The microorganisms make alcohol, but it isn’t separated from the milk, which turns into a fizzy fermented beverage with no water added.

Understanding Alcohol

Alcohol beverages are among mankind’s oldest home remedies and simple pleasures, so highly regarded that the ancient Greeks and Romans called wine a “gift from the gods,” and when the Gaels — early inhabitants of Scotland and Ireland — first produced whiskey, they named it uisge beatha (whis-key-ba), a combination of the words for “water” and “life.” Today, although you may share their appreciation for the product, you know that alcohol beverages may have risks as well as benefits.

By the way, throughout this section I refer to beverages made from alcohol as “alcohol beverages.” Yes, I know most people probably think the correct term is “alcoholic beverages,” but whenever I write or say those words, I get an immediate image of tipsy beer bottles. Besides, you’ve heard of “milk beverages” but not “milky” ones, or “cola beverages” but not “cola-y” ones. So do please indulge me.

When microorganisms (yeasts) digest (ferment) the sugars in carbohydrate foods, they make two byproducts: a liquid and a gas. The gas is carbon dioxide. The liquid is ethyl alcohol, also known as ethanol, the intoxicating ingredient in alcohol beverages.
This biochemical process is not an esoteric one. In fact, it happens in your own kitchen every time you make yeast bread. Remember the faint, beer-like odor in the air while the dough is rising? That odor is from the alcohol the yeasts make as they chomp their way through the sugars in the flour. (Don’t worry; the alcohol evaporates when you bake the bread.) As the yeasts digest the sugars, they also produce carbon dioxide, which makes the bread rise. From now on, whenever you see the word alcohol alone in this blog, unless otherwise noted, it means ethanol, the only alcohol used in alcohol beverages. (Yes, yes, yes. That definition applies backward, too. If you find the word alcohol in a previous chapter, it, too, means ethanol. Gee. Some people are sooooooo picky.)

Fiber and your heart: The continuing saga of oat bran

Oat bran is the second chapter in the fiber fad that started with wheat bran around 1980. Wheat bran, the fiber in wheat, is rich in the insoluble fibers cellulose and lignin. Oat bran’s gee-whiz factor is the soluble fiber betaglucans. For more than 30 years, scientists have known that eating foods high in soluble fiber can lower your cholesterol, although nobody knows exactly why. Fruits and vegetables (especially dried beans) are high in soluble fiber, but ounce for ounce, oats have more. In addition, beta-glucans are a more effective cholesterol-buster than pectin and gum, which are the soluble fibers in most fruits and vegetables. By 1990, researchers at the University of Kentucky reported that people who add 1⁄2 cup dry oat bran (not oatmeal) to their regular daily diets can lower their levels of low density lipoproteins (LDLs), the particles that carry cholesterol into your arteries, by as much as 25 percent.

Recently, scientists at the Medical School of Northwestern University, funded by Quaker Oats, enlisted 208 healthy volunteers whose normal cholesterol readings averaged about 200 mg/dl for a study involving oat bran. The volunteers’ total cholesterol levels decreased an average of 9.3 percent with a low-fat, lowcholesterol diet supplemented by 2 ounces of oats or oat bran every day. About one-third of the cholesterol reduction was credited to the oats. Oat cereal makers rounded the total loss to 10 percent, and the National Research Council said that a 10 percent drop in cholesterol could produce a 20 percent drop in the risk of a heart attack.

Do I have to tell you what happened next? Books on oat bran hit the bestseller list. Cheerios elbowed Frosted Flakes aside to become the number one cereal in America. And people added oat bran to everything from bagels to orange juice.
Today scientists know that although a little oat bran can’t hurt, the link between oats and cholesterol levels is no cure-all.
As a general rule, an adult whose cholesterol level is higher than 250 mg/dl is considered to be at high risk. A cholesterol reading between 200 and 250 mg/dl is considered moderately risky. A cholesterol level below 200 mg/dl is considered pretty good. No, that’s not a technical term, but you get the idea.
If your cholesterol level is above 250 mg/dl, lowering it by 10 percent through a diet that contains oat bran may reduce your risk of heart attack without the use of medication. If your cholesterol level is lower than that to begin with, the effects of oat bran are less dramatic. For example:
  • If your cholesterol level is below 250 mg/dl, a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet alone may push it down 15 points into the moderately risky range. Adding oats reduces it another 8 points but doesn’t take you into okeydokey territory, under 200 mg/dl.
  • If your cholesterol is already low, say 199 mg/dl or less, a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet plus oats may drop it to 180 mg/dl, but the oats account for only 6 points of your loss. Recognizing oat bran’s benefits, the Food and Drug Administration now permits health claims on oat product labels. For example, the product label may say: “Soluble fiber from foods such as oat bran, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease.” By the way, the soluble pectin in apples and the soluble beta-glucans (gums) in beans and peas also lower cholesterol levels. The insoluble fiber in wheat bran does not.

Fiber factoid

The amount of fiber in a serving of food may depend on whether the food is raw or cooked. For example, a 3.5-ounce serving of plain dried prunes has 7.2 grams of fiber while a 3.5-ounce serving of stewed prunes has 6.6 grams of fiber. Why? When you stew prunes, they plump up —which means they absorb water. The water adds weight but (obviously) no fiber. So a serving of prunes-plus-water has slightly less fiber per ounce than a same-weight serving of plain dried prunes.

How much fiber do you need?

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average American woman gets about 12 grams of fiber a day from food; the average American man, 17 grams. Those figures are well below the new IOM (Institute of Medicine) recommendations that I conveniently list here:
  • 25 grams a day for women younger than 50
  • 38 grams a day for men younger than 50
  • 21 grams a day for women older than 50
  • 30 grams a day for men older than 50
The amounts of dietary fiber recommended by IOM are believed to give you the benefits you want without causing fiber-related — um — unpleasantries. Unpleasantries? Like what? And how will you know if you’ve got them? Trust me: If you eat more than enough fiber, your body will tell you right away. All that roughage may irritate your intestinal tract, which will issue an unmistakable protest in the form of intestinal gas or diarrhea. In extreme cases, if you don’t drink enough liquids to moisten and soften the fiber you eat so that it easily slides through your digestive tract, the dietary fiber may form a mass that can end up as an intestinal obstruction.
If you decide to up the amount of fiber in your diet, follow this advice:
  • Do so very gradually, a little bit more every day. That way you’re less likely to experience intestinal distress. In other words, if your current diet is heavy on no-fiber foods such as meat, fish, poultry, eggs, milk, and cheese, and low-fiber foods such as white bread and white rice, don’t load up on bran cereal (35 grams dietary fiber per 3.5-ounce serving) or dried figs (9.3 grams per serving) all at once. Start by adding a serving of cornflakes (2.0 grams dietary fiber) at breakfast, maybe an apple (2.8 grams) at lunch, a pear (2.6 grams) at mid-afternoon, and a half cup of baked beans (7.7 grams) at dinner. Four simple additions, and already you’re up to 15 grams dietary fiber.
  • Always check the nutrition label whenever you shop. When choosing between similar products, just take the one with the higher fiber content per serving. For example, white pita bread generally has about 1.6 grams dietary fiber per serving. Whole wheat pita bread has 7.4 grams. From a fiber standpoint, you know which works better for your body. Go for it!
  • Get enough liquids. Dietary fiber is like a sponge. It sops up liquid, so increasing your fiber intake may deprive your cells of the water they need to perform their daily work. That’s why the American Academy of Family Physicians (among others) suggests checking to make sure you get plenty fluids when you consume more fiber. How much is enough?
Or — let’s get real! — you can look at the nutrition label on the side of the package that gives the nutrients per portion.
Finally, the amounts on this chart are averages. Different brands of processed products (breads, some cereals, cooked fruits, and vegetables) may have more (or less) fiber per serving.

The two kinds of dietary fiber

Nutritionists classify dietary fiber as either insoluble fiber or soluble fiber, depending on whether it dissolves in water. (Both kinds of fiber resist human digestive enzymes.)
  • Insoluble fiber: This type of fiber includes cellulose, some hemicelluloses, and lignin found in whole grains and other plants. This kind of dietary fiber is a natural laxative. It absorbs water, helps you feel full after eating, and stimulates your intestinal walls to contract and relax. These natural contractions, called peristalsis, move solid materials through your digestive tract. By moving food quickly through your intestines, insoluble fiber may help relieve or prevent digestive disorders such as constipation or diverticulitis (infection that occurs when food gets stuck in small pouches in the wall of the colon). Insoluble fiber also bulks up stool and makes it softer, reducing your risk of developing hemorrhoids and lessening the discomfort if you already have them.
  • Soluble fiber: This fiber, such as pectins in apples and beta-glucans in oats and barley, seems to lower the amount of cholesterol circulating in your blood (your cholesterol level). This tendency may be why a diet rich in fiber appears to offer some protection against heart disease.

Here’s a benefit for dieters: Soluble fiber forms gels in the presence of water, which is what happens when apples and oat bran reach your digestive tract. Like insoluble fiber, soluble fiber can make you feel full without adding calories. Ordinary soluble dietary fiber can’t be digested, so your body doesn’t absorb it. But in 2002, researchers at Detroit’s Barbara Ann Karamonos Cancer Institute fed laboratory mice a form of soluble dietary fiber called modified citrus pectin.

The fiber, which is made from citrus fruit peel, can be digested. When fed to laboratory rats, it appeared to reduce the size of tumors caused by implanted human breast and colon cancer cells. The researchers believe that the fiber prevents cancer cells from linking together to form tumors. Now, two pharmaceutical companies — one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast — are investigating the effects of modified citrus pectin in human beings. But the product isn’t yet ready for prime time. Although it’s being sold as a dietary supplement (not as a medicine), experts warn that its effects on human bodies (and human cancers) remain unproven.