If you’ve never gotten fast food after leaving a bar late at night (or, more correctly, early in the morning) I’d highly recommend it. I’ve never been sure if it’s the intoxication, the tiredness, or the unusual hour that makes post-pub falafel taste like heaven, but somehow after I go out drinking with my lab mates the food always just is better. I had resigned myself to the mysterious joy of 2 a.m. poutine remaining just that, a mystery. But last Christmas my grandfather took me by the shoulders and with odd earnest asked me to write an article finding out if alcohol is an appetite stimulant. Well, Grandpa, it may have taken seven months, but here it is! Let’s take a look at the evidence for alcohol as an appetite stimulant.
Have you ever heard the saying “beer before liquor never been sicker”? Or “liquor before beer, you’re in the clear”? What about “grape or grain but never the twain”? Well, it turns out that there might be some truth to at least some of these adages.
There are a few factors to consider here.
First, there’s the absolute volume of alcohol you are consuming. Looking at the Manhattan as our example cocktail, it contains roughly 28% alcohol by volume (ABV), which makes it seem much less potent than, say, straight whiskey, with its ABV of 40%. But it’s not really fair to compare these drinks on their ABVs since the amounts consumed tend to be different.
What matters isn’t the ABV of a drink, but the true amount of pure alcohol (ethanol) in a drink. In the chart below you can see a comparison of drinks’ ABVs, volumes, and actual amounts of ethanol.
Volume of 1 Drink (mL)
Absolute Amount of Alcohol in 1 Drink (oz)
So you can see that, even though we tend to consider one glass of wine, cocktail, or can of beer equal to “one drink”, the actual amount of alcohol you’re consuming can vary wildly by what kind of drink you are having.
The volume difference in drinks also influences how quickly we drink them. A beer tends to take longer to drink than a cocktail, or especially a shot, simply because it’s much larger. Purely based on volume, you could drink 2.5 Manhattans in the time it takes to drink one bottle of beer. So, by drinking beer, you essentially give yourself a lower alcohol per minute rate of consumption than when drinking cocktails.
If your options are only to drink cocktails and then beer, or beer and then cocktails, it makes sense to keep your heavier drinking for the beginning of your night. When you’re more sober you’ll be better able to pace yourself, evaluate how you’re feeling, and make changes to your rate of consumption if need be. Later in the evening, when your decision-making process is already compromised, beer is a safer option that won’t contribute as much to making you more intoxicated.
There is however another factor at play here: how well your body absorbs alcohol in different preparations. A 2007 study found that the vodka served diluted (with carbonated or still water) was absorbed faster than the vodka served neat. This means that even if the same amount of time is taken to drink straight liquor or a glass of wine (two drinks which contain about the same absolute amount of alcohol) the wine still may leave you more intoxicated, as it is better absorbed into your blood.
As for the grape or grain advice? Feel free to ignore it. A 2019 study compared the hangover severities of subjects who drank only beer, only wine, beer and then wine, or wine and then beer, and found that “neither type nor order of consumed alcoholic beverages significantly affected hangover intensity.”
The term “alcohol” to a chemist means an organic compound that contains an OH group, but as far as the public is concerned “alcohol” refers to one specific compound, namely, ethanol. It is ethanol that we consume in wine or beer, and when we measure blood alcohol content (BAC), we’re really measuring blood ethanol content.
Breath analyzers (Breathalyzer is a brand name) contain an anode (negatively charged electrode) and a cathode (positively charged electrode). When you blow into a breathalyzer, the ethanol in your breath reacts with water from the air at the anode and is oxidized to form acetic acid (like in vinegar).
Meanwhile, at the cathode, oxygen from the atmosphere is reduced to form water. These two coupled reactions produce an electrical current between the electrodes that’s proportional to the amount of ethanol present in your breath. So, breathalyzers don’t truly measure blood alcohol content (which can only be done with a blood test) but estimate it based on the ethanol in your breath.
There are a few situations in which a breathalyzer may fail to measure BAC accurately. Notably, individuals with higher-than-normal levels of acetone in their breath may have it detected as ethanol. This could include diabetics, those on fasting diets, or those adhering to a ketogenic diet. There are a few other substances that could interfere with the chemistry of a breathalyzer, but not ones that you’re too likely to have in your bloodstream, thankfully.
In 1957 the U.S. government conducted a study aptly named “The Effect of Nuclear Explosions on Commercially Packaged Beverages”. The researchers placed cans and bottles of beer and other drinks in various proximities to a nuclear explosion, some above ground, some sheltered, and left them to experience the nightmare of a nuclear explosion.
Did the Fallout series get it right when they populated the post-apocalyptic wasteland with beer and cola bottles? Yes! Naturally, some beverages were hit by debris and broke, but any that remained physically intact werefound to be safe to drink. And drink them they did, declaring that the beverages closest to the blast tasted “definitely off”, but ones from a bit further away were still of “commercial quality”.
Sadly, while ethanol does show some scavenging activity, it’s fairly weak compared with some of the other bioactive scavengers we know about, like naringenin (found in grapefruits) and tocopherols (found in vegetable oils). Not to mention that the levels of radiation you’re likely to experience when traversing the wasteland of Canada are going to be a bit high for scavenging molecules to really help.
So, if the bombs do fall, remember that six-pack you have in the garage because, while it might not stop radiation, it might make the apocalypse a bit more bearable.
Unless you’re participating in a spelling bee or playing Fallout New Vegas, you probably don’t think about sassafras much, but you might still ingest it regularly. It is, or at least once was, the main flavourful ingredient in root beer.
Sassafras (a tree) and sarsaparilla (a vine) were traditionally used–along with other substances like licorice root, mint, nutmeg, and more–to flavour root beer. Recipes for root beer similar to what we know today date back to 1860, and sassafras root beverages date back even further, made by indigenous peoples for medicinal and culinary purposes.
But modern root beer doesn’t contain any real sassafras root anymore, why not?
Well, sassafras and sarsaparilla both contain safrole, a compound recently banned by the FDA due to its carcinogenic effects. Safrole was found tocontribute to liver cancer in rats when given in high doses, and thus it and sassafras or sarsaparilla-containing products were banned.
But more recent studies have actually failed to find evidence that the effects seen in rats occur in humans. This, and the fact that several other (still legal) foods, like the aforementioned nutmeg, also contain safrole, makes the ban seem less science based and more the result of fear.
So, modern root beer is flavoured most often with artificial sassafras, though sometimes with safrole-free sassafras too. More important than checking the safrole content of your beverage, though, might be checking the alcohol content. Traditional root beer was usually alcoholic, whereas modern root beer is rarely fortified with ethanol and is a favourite of kids everywhere.