Want to start a lively discussion with your whiskey-drinking buds? Your choices of subject matter are rife with topics including ice or no ice, water or neat, is whiskey gluten-free or not, older versus younger, or big bucks versus affordable. Another provocative topic is the health benefits of whiskey … or not.
Recent syndicated newspaper articles headline “Want to live to be at least 90? Have a drink”, and “Work hard, play hard, flame out”. A myriad of Internet search results ballyhoo whiskey as preventing cancer, colds and the flu, helping to maintain weight, enhancing memory, increasing longevity, and slowing dementia. In these articles, many from esteemed institutions by credentialed authors also mention beneficial alternatives to drinking whisky. Some of these include exercise, sports, taking a class, eating healthier, and pursuit of a hobby. The World Health Organization states, “… moderate drinking (1-3 drinks per day) provides a moderate protective effect against cardiovascular disease, as compared with abstention and heavy drinking.”
The dizzying profusion of “facts” include statistics from countries around the world, where different diets, lifestyles, genetics and living conditions all come into play. No wonder getting a consensus is problematic. For this article, I’m looking at a few health aspects of drinking whiskey in the United States. Some of this compilation has been gleaned from sources including the Harvard School of Public Health, the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S., the American Cancer Society (ACS), and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (USFDA).
Areas of a broad, general agreement of the health benefits of whiskey include an increase in “good” and a decrease in “bad” cholesterol, increasing coronary blood flow and reducing blood pressure. Areas in contention include the good news that drinking whiskey is not fattening because it is very low in carbs and calories. The bad news is that the calories are “empty”, with no nutritional value and drinking alcohol usually stimulates the appetite, causing one to eat more. Perhaps the most controversial area centers on whisky’s ability to be of benefit in cases of cancer. The main focus surrounds ellagic (ĕ laj ik) acid. This substance, present in whiskey, is also found in the same oak that whisky distillers use in their aging barrels: North American white oak (Quercus alba) and European red oak (Quercus robur). It is also found in abundance in various berries, nuts, and some fruit. Ellagic acid has strong antioxidant properties which neutralize the DNA binding of certain carcinogens, and has been sold as a dietary supplement with purported benefits against cancer and heart disease. About ellagic acid, the USFDA says it is a “Fake cancer cure consumers should avoid.” The ACS says that “Claims that ellagic acid can treat or prevent cancer in humans have not been proven.” Lesley Walker, of Cancer Research UK says, “Ellagic acid is a powerful antioxidant, but that does not mean it is necessary to hit the bottle,” noting that ellagic acid is also found in the foods listed above.
On a personal note, regarding claims that drinking whiskey significantly reduces blood clotting, I report that, after decades of moderate whiskey drinking, I suffered two episodes, two years apart, of blood clots (deep vein thrombosis) behind each knee, resulting in hospital stays and a life-long prescription for a daily blood thinner.
Controversies always stimulate lively discussions, especially with whiskey. In the area of whiskey’s health benefits (or is it more about benefits to well-being?), where not even the definition of “moderate drinking” can be agreed upon, awareness is essential. The dark side of alcohol abuse gets press and airtime with graphic words and pictures, and accurate medical conclusions are cloudy at best. On a more positive note, here’s a topic for your next discussion over a pleasant dram: Why do YOU drink whiskey?