Alcohol Consumption during the Paleolithic Era
In all of my popular Paleo Diet books including The Paleo Diet, The Paleo Diet for Athletes, The Paleo Diet Cookbook and The Paleo Answer, I have always suggested that moderate alcohol consumption is consistent with the health goals of the Paleo Diet, despite our research1 showing that virtually all humans living as hunter gatherers during the Paleolithic era likely did not consume alcohol (ethanol). Our foraging ancestors simply did not have the technological means to manufacture this compound and consume it on a regular basis.
As our species made the transition from the Paleolithic era (2.5 million years ago to 10,000 years ago) to the Neolithic era (10,000 to 5,000 years ago), there is no doubt that the knowledge to produce fermented beverages containing low concentrations of ethanol became common place. An extensive ethnographic literature demonstrates non-westernized, indigenous people worldwide produced alcoholic beverages with only minimal technology.2 – 5 However, the alcohol concentration in their beverages was and is typically low. Distilled spirits did not exist.4 Accordingly, the risk of alcohol abuse and diseases of alcoholism was likely low to non-existent.
Natural fermentation can spontaneously occur in fruit juices, fruit mashes or fruit purees when airborne or other environmental yeasts contaminate the fruit products and subsequently metabolize the sugars in the fruit into alcohol. If the fermentation process (spoilage) is allowed to continue, the waste products of yeast metabolism of fruit sugars produce carbon dioxide and ethanol, which of course is the element (ethanol) desired in alcoholic beverages. Fruits high in sugar allow the yeast to produce beverages with higher alcoholic (ethanol) concentrations, but eventually increasing ethanol concentrations kill the very yeasts that produce it.
Because wild grapes, which contain moderate to high sugar concentrations, would have been found throughout much of the Paleolithic world inhabited by hunter gatherers,6 it seems likely that one of the first alcoholic beverages (wine) was accidentally produced when grapes, whose skins are frequently contaminated with yeasts, were collected and mashed into a puree or juice and unintentionally left to ferment. Voila, we now have wine, but almost certainly of lower alcohol content than contemporary wines, and almost surely not of the same taste.
The first archaeological evidence for deliberate wine making occurred approximately 7,000 to 7,500 years ago,6 but likely was in place a millennium earlier, or even before, as people made the transition from hunter gatherers to farmers in Europe and Asia and domesticated grapes.7 As wine making progressed from the Neolithic times to the present, numerous production and manufacturing procedures were implemented to improve the taste, quality and storage life of this beverage. However, health-wise, one of the questionable recent additions to the formulation of almost all modern wines are chemicals called sulfites. Note that added sulfites are not essential to wine making.
I don’t know about you, but decades ago, between 1970s – 1990s, when I bought wines for dinner and family occasions I noticed labels on some of my favorite wines indicated “Contains Sulfites.” Like many consumers I simply disregarded or forgot this notice and put it somewhere in my brain registry of nutritional facts that I should eventually reconsider.
If you read your wine bottle labels carefully, almost all list this statement “Contains Sulfites.” Unfortunately, virtually no winery that I know of states the exact concentrations of sulfites in their wines or even lets on to us that any adverse health effects may arise from ingestion of these chemicals. Notable exceptions to this dogma include a few wineries in the U.S. and abroad which produce wines that are advertised as “Without Added Sulfites,” including the following:
Before, I get into a discussion of the sulfite content of wines, beer and other foods and the influence of sulfites upon health and wellbeing, it should be noted that even wines produced without added sulfites actually maintain tiny amounts of these compounds which result from the fermentation process itself. Do these tiny, residual quantities of sulfite matter to your health? Probably not, as I will shortly demonstrate.
OK, so what are sulfites? And why do wine, beverage and food manufacturers infuse their once natural and generally unadulterated products with these chemicals? Here’s a laundry list of the most common sulfites:
- Sodium sulphite
- Sodium bisulphite
- Sodium metabisulphite
- Potassium sulphite
- Potassium bisulfite
- Potassium metabisulphite
- Calcium sulphite
- Calcium bisulfate
- Sulfur dioxide (which is not a sulfite, but rather a closely related oxide.)
In foods and beverages sulfites may ultimately produce sulfur dioxide (SO2), and other compounds (HSO3-), (SO32-), (S2O52-) which may be bound to elements in the food/beverage or which may form free sulfites.8 Added sulfites can prevent growth and oxidation of undesired species of bacteria, yeast and other microorganisms in wine and foods. Besides their antimicrobial action, sulfites are widely used in the food processing industry – predominantly as anti-browning agents, antioxidants, color stabilizers, and preservatives.9, 10 The following table11, 12 shows the concentration of total sulfites (bound and free) found in common beverages and foods.
Note that this list is certainly not comprehensive nor representative of all brands and products of foods found in each category. Accordingly the sulfite content of virtually all processed foods and beverages (including wine) is never reported on labels, simply because governmental agencies worldwide (including the U.S.) don’t require this information from manufacturers to be supplied to consumers. In the U.S. we are now burdened by four lame and obsolete laws regarding dietary sulfites which were enacted by the FDA some 26-28 years ago.13 – 16 In the first edict,13, 15 the FDA simply required manufacturers to make the statement “Contains Sulfites” on food or beverage products that contained 10ppm or greater of total sulfites. In the second statute,14, 16 the FDA mandated that fresh fruits and vegetables could not be laced with sulfites.
Let’s take a look at what these two pieces of legislative fog actually mean to the typical consumer. The first portion13, 15 states that whether a food contains 10ppm of sulfites or values approaching acceptable maximal daily limits for these chemicals (>0.7 mg per kg body weight),8 the labeling for the manufacturer for their product remains exactly the same – they must only state”Contains Sulfites.”
The second statute14, 16 stipulates that fresh fruits and vegetables, such as in fresh supermarket produce or salad bars cannot contain any added sulfites. The rationale here by the governmental edict is that purveyors of these products would keep their fruits and veggies on the shelf indefinitely by simply spraying or soaking these items with sulfites. In turn, consumers purchasing what they thought was fresh produce would actually be ingesting large amounts of sulfites in dated fruits and veggies. Hence the USDA legislation actually had the consumer in mind by preventing excessive consumption of sulfites which even at the time (1986-88) were known to produce serious health concerns.
In theory, the FDA at this early juncture can’’t necessarily be faulted, because they were taking steps to limit sulfite intake in the U.S. population.13 – 16 Unfortunately, no teeth were put into these governmental edicts to really make a difference. We are now saddled with weak laws that allow manufacturers of foods and beverages to sidestep the intent of this original legislation (lowering sulfite intake), and increase their company profitability by extending the shelf life of their products with added sulfites.
Health Issues with Added Sulfites
A number of recent reviews by internationally recognized experts who have studied the adverse health effects of added sulfites have concluded with the following statements:
“the clinical importance of sensitivities to these additives remains underestimated.”17
“Whilst the apparent safety of the sulphite additives lead to their widespread use, reports began to emerge during the 1970’s that sulphite exposure was associated with adverse reactions.” These included the triggering of anaphylactic reactions, as well as the elicitation of a wide range of symptoms, including dermatitis, urticaria, flushing, hypotension, abdominal pain and diarrhea… and the triggering of bronchoconstriction in asthmatic patients”18
“Currently, sulfiting agents are not considered GRAS for use in meats, foods recognized as a major source of vitamin B-1 (sulfites have been found to destroy thiamin), or fruits or vegetables intended to be served raw to consumers or to be presented to consumers as fresh.”19
“The analysis of specific consumption data confirmed the existence of a risk of exceeding the ADI (Acceptable Daily Intake) related to sulphite residue levels in wine.”20
If you have ever tipped more than three glasses of wine at a dinner, a celebration or for whatever reason, you most likely have experienced a “hangover” and most likely attributed these symptoms to “too much alcohol.” You are probably right—regardless of its source, acute, excessive ethanol consumption does damage to our physiology which on the short term causes a number of symptoms which we collectively refer to as a “hangover.” Many people experience hangover like symptoms, particularly after imbibing too much wine.
As I have outlined above, wine is a potent source of dietary sulfites – so much so, that a number of studies have concluded that the two major dietary sources of sulfites for adults are wine and dried, processed fruit.8, 20, 21 How much dietary sulfite is too much? Symptoms of sulfite toxicity with wine may occur when wines exceeding 150ppm (see the table above) are consumed,12 particularly when you drink more than 450ml.8 A standard wine bottle contains 750ml, so if you drink 2-3 moderate glasses of wine, you can easily exceed 450ml.
Symptoms of sulfite toxicity are quite similar to being drunk or experiencing a hangover and include: flushing, fast heartbeart, stomach upset, diarrhea and abdominal pain. Further, excessive sulfite ingestion may cause hives (urticaria), wheezing, dizziness, difficulty in swallowing, tingling in limbs and low blood pressure.17, 18 The greatest threat to health from sulfites is their aggravating effect upon pulmonary function in asthmatics (be they children or adults). It is estimated that 3-10% of all asthmatic patients are sensitive to sulfites and children with asthma appear to be at even a higher risk.18
Some Practical Advice
It completely amazes me how virtually every hand we humans play in modifying our natural food supply seems to result in adverse health effects. Who would think that a simple chemical like sulfites, which have been used for at least 200 years to preserve food and wine could have such far reaching effects upon our health and well being. Granted, most people don’t present with overt sulfite toxicity, but the effects certainly must be subtle for all of us and affect each and every one of us in a different manner.
Lorrie and I met old friends in a Reno casino buffet this summer for lunch. We both lavished upon the unlimited, rich steamed shrimp bowls and the cornucopia of colorful salads, vegetables and fruits. I was amazed at how the enormous quantities of these dishes could be offered and displayed at all hours of the day – seemingly fresh and straight from the garden. None of these dishes ever showed signs of spoilage, browning or anything beyond freshness. That night neither one of us slept well; our dreams were disturbed and we both experienced digestive upset. Was it added sulfites to make all of these casino buffet dishes appear pristine that caused our indigestion? I don’t know. But this pattern has repeated itself over the decades as we have returned to Reno and its casino buffets.
My advice is always to focus upon non-processed foods: fresh fruits, veggies, meat, fish, poultry, eggs and nuts while avoiding anything you buy in a can, box, bottle or plastic container. They likely contain sulfites and other non healthful additives. Wine is a delicious compliment for special meals – if you would like to treat yourself to this non-Paleo item, checkout the sulfite free wines which are available at your local dealers, and see if these wines make a difference for you.
Loren Cordain, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus
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