Malt Liquor Beverages Processed Differently Than Other Drinks

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A small new study suggests that people process malt liquor beverages differently than they do other alcoholic beverages. While the liver breaks down all alcohol in the same way, the study examined differences in how quickly the body absorbs alcohol.

The researchers found a significant difference in how quickly the study participants' bodies absorbed malt liquor beverages compared to beverages made of combined ethanol and diet soda with the same alcohol content. Participants absorbed the malt liquor beverage more slowly and it took a longer time to reach a peak breath-alcohol level.

"One could argue that the delayed absorption could result in lower peak levels — although we did not see that in our study — which might cause people to drink more," said lead author Robert Taylor, M.D.

Taylor is director of the Collaborative Alcohol Research Center and chairperson of the College of Medicine Department of Pharmacology at Howard University. The study appears online and in the December issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

The study looked at specific types of an enzyme in 31 young, healthy African-Americans adults whom the researchers considered "social drinkers," which they defined as consuming about 12 drinks a month. The enzyme — called alcohol dehydrogenase — resides in the digestive tract and helps break down alcohol so that the body can process and excrete it.

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Still, is it a fair to compare malt liquor with a soda-ethanol mixture?

"I don't think it's entirely fair to equate the two because soda has much less of an addictive quality," said H. Steven Sims, M.D., director of the Chicago Institute for Voice Care. "The issue of metabolism is really complex and I don't necessarily [agree] that they gave enough information to 'prove' this. The evidence is suggestive and shows a trend, but probably not statistically significant results."

Taylor says that the diet soda-ethanol drink had about the same ethanol concentration of the malt liquor and the same number of calories, so it was only missing the non-fermented byproducts found in malt liquor that likely produces the taste of the beverages.

Sims said that the researchers might have been trying to show that a stronger "buzz" could make malt liquor more addictive, adding that since the beverages are inexpensive, it is a "combination of a potent, readily available, but potentially harmful beverage."

In their study, the researchers addressed the added influence of marketing on malt liquor's appeal, but Taylor said there was "no direct connection between our findings and targeted marketing of malt liquor," although he notes other studies suggest targeted marketing.

"The pairing of Billy Dee Williams and other African-American celebrities to market these products strongly suggests that African-Americans have been shown to be consumers of these products," said Sims, who was not involved with the study.

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