Drinking: the great American pastime. Despite the fact that we all know the dangers involved with alcohol consumption, as of 2014 64 percent of adults in the U.S. (meaning 18 or older, thus including adult, under-aged drinkers) stated they had “occasion to use alcoholic beverages). The drinking rate among people who were of age was about the same at 65 percent.
So, what are America’s favorite poisons? Well, 2014:
- 41 percent of U.S. drinkers consumed beer
- 31 percent consumed wine
- 23 percent consumed liquor
Alcohol is the third highest cause of death in the U.S., claiming nearly 88,000 lives per year. Shockingly, however, the United States isn’t even the top consumer of alcohol in the world- we don’t even break the top 10. As of 2014, those countries were:
- The Republic of Moldova
- The Russian Federation
- The Czech Republic
That being said, Americans still enjoy quite a bit of alcohol with little regard other than having a tolerable taste and the desired effects. That’s fine for the alcoholic beverages industry- it earned them $211.6 billion in 2015. But for the sake of public health and breaking the stranglehold alcohol has on American society, we need to know a bit more about it than “beer before liquor, never been sicker.” (Also, that’s not true, anyway.)
Let’s compare America’s favorite poisons, shall we?
Breaking Down the Booze: How They’re Made
Beer and wine don’t have much in common, right? Stereotypically, beer is the sign of a “man’s man” and wine is for the fair and dainty ladies, isn’t? (I cringed a bit even writing that.) Even without the sexism, the average person would say beer and wine are at two separate ends of the alcoholic spectrum. But they do have one thing in common: fermentation.
Everyone knows wine is (usually) made from grapes or other fruits and beer is (typically) from hops or a variety of grains. Both beverages undergo fermentation, in which sugar molecules are broken down anabolically; in the case of beer and wine, this process is usually catalyzed by the use of yeast. Fermentation is not a process which should be rushed, especially with wine where the longer the fruits are allowed to ferment, the richer the flavor.
So what about spirits, like vodka, whisky, and rum? Those alcoholic beverages are produced through a process known as distillation. While distillation begins with a fermentation stage, it takes things further by filtering the fermented liquid until the resulting product is purified of diluting byproducts of fermentation, like fruit juices or water.
The less diluting factors present, the more alcohol-by-volume (ABV) a drink has. Some of the world’s strongest alcoholic drinks are nearly 100 percent alcohol, which is incredibly dangerous to your health.
All About the ABV: Proof and Alcohol Content
As a rule of thumb, most alcoholic drinks have between three and 40 percent ABV. When you rank the most popular types of drinks in the United States by their alcoholic content, it shows a surprising statistic: Americans apparently don’t actually like alcohol that much. The most widely consumed alcoholic beverage as noted earlier is beer, yet your average beer only has between four and six percent alcohol by volume.
Of course, that fact can be interpreted another way: because of the low alcohol content of beer, Americans must drink more of it in order to experience the desired effects.
Next in line for rank of alcohol by volume is wine with only 9 to 16 percent ABV. Wine requires a bit less in order to get intoxicated, but because the alcohol level can be low, people tend to drink lots of it and quickly. When your body actually begins to process it, it “sneaks up on you”, leaving you flat on your back wondering how you got so drunk.
Then there’s the spirits: because this encompasses so many beverages, and a number of other factors which affect the ABV, it’s difficult to give an exact range. However, common hard liquors like whisky can have up to 40 percent alcohol by volume. It’s safe to say chugging that would not be a wise decision.
The Damage is the Same
Let me be frank with this one: there is no way to drink alcohol without experiencing damage. There are no magic cures that will “protect your liver” or “undo the damage” caused by binge drinking or even casual drinking. While your body can process alcohol, excess levels of it in your body damage your digestive tract, liver, and other organs. The liver damage is especially concerning, as it is irreversible. Excessive drinking over a prolonged period of time can lead to liver failure, cirrhosis of the liver, liver cancer, and a terrifying condition known as delirium tremens.
Delirium tremens sets in during the late stages of alcohol abuse and is a symptom of your body’s overwhelming reliance on alcohol. It is a severe form of alcohol withdrawal which can be life-threatening and affects your cardiovascular and mental health.
- Chest and stomach pain
- Increased heart rate
- Labored breathing
- Excessive sweating
- Heightened sensitivity to light, sound, or touch
Delirium tremens can develop any time there is a sudden decrease in alcohol consumption after excessive use, and is potentially lethal. Because of this, quitting alcohol “cold turkey” and without the supervision of a medical staff is highly risky; if you or someone you know needs help with their alcohol abuse problem, rehab is the safest choice.
Do you have a suggestion for next week’s “What’s the Difference?” Let me know in the comments!
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