Jim Koch, the founder and chairman of the beer company that makes Samuel Adams, made headlines last month when he revealed a supposed secret to drinking alcohol without getting drunk in an interview with Esquire magazine.
The trick, Koch said, is to ingest active dry yeast — which can be purchased at the grocery store — before drinking. He takes one teaspoon of yeast per drink and mixes it with yogurt to make it easier to eat.
The science to support Koch’s strategy is flimsy, although he was not the first to come up with this pretreatment.
Forbes’s David Kroll traced the yeast method back to a biochemist named Joseph Owades. Owades, whose recipe for making a low-calorie beer made him a leader in the brewing industry, died in 2005. Only a few years before that, Owades also claimed to have invented a process for “mediating the effects of alcohol consumption by orally administering active dry yeast.” He filed a U.S. patent in 2001.
According to Owades, the baker’s yeast might be administered in a tablet, powder, paste, or liquid form “just before, or during, the drinking of an alcoholic beverage.”
The yeast supplements the body’s natural breakdown of alcohol by making an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase, or ADH. Specifically, ADH oxidizes a portion of the alcohol in the stomach and turns it into acetaldehyde, which has “no effect on the nervous system or the brain,” Owades said.
To test his method, Owades had eight people drink either beer, wine, or vodka and then measured their blood alcohol levels using a breathalyzer at various times over a period of 180 minutes. The same people then repeated the experiment, only this time they ingested baker’s or vinter’s yeast before drinking the same type and amount of alcohol.
In Figure 5, for example, the blood alcohol level of a 150-pound woman who drank a 24-ounce beer containing 5% alcohol by volume is compared to her blood alcohol level when she ate 5 grams of baker’s yeast before imbibing. According to the study, the yeast prescription reduced her blood alcohol levels by 26%.
The experiments seem to produce promising results, although Kroll pinpoints several flaws, which is probably why the yeast method hasn’t been more widely adopted by now.
Indeed, Owades’ experiments in the patent application have never been published in a peer-reviewed journal. In fact, I doubt that any journal reviewers would let the work be published as presented.
First of all, the earliest breathalyzer reading, and highest alcohol concentration, is at 10 minutes. But alcohol remaining in the mouth can make this appear artificially high. Ideally, breath should best be measured beginning at 20 minutes after the last drink. Also, we don’t know how many times the analysis was repeated at each time. Finally, Owades mixed the types of alcoholic drinks, subjects, and even the yeast, used across only eight subjects.
More importantly, a biochemistry professor told Kroll that the enzyme would probably be destroyed by the acids in the stomach before it would be effective. (This was also a criticism of Koch’s strategy when it was initially revealed).
So what’s the bottom line?
“Ingesting baker’s yeast prior to drinking is unlikely to reduce blood alcohol levels or make you less intoxicated,” Kroll concludes.
Kroll also explained how Koch is probably able to drink a lot without losing control. “He likely drinks with enough frequency that his body his increased levels of one of the enzymes that metabolizes alcohol.”
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