Ask a Foodie: Is there any truth to the saying, 'Beer before liquor, never been sicker?'

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By: Geoff Lesar
glesar@flavor574.com

Left: Phil Dragash/Flickr; right: Andres Nieto Porras/Flickr

As popular as it may be on college campuses, some physicians have never heard the questionable adage, “Beer before liquor, never been sicker. Liquor before beer, you’re in the clear.” 

“I’m not familiar with research studies that have tested it out,” said Dr. Ralph Hingson, director of the division of epidemiology and prevention research at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “What I do know is that it’s the absolute amount of alcohol that we’re really concerned about in terms of injury risk and risk of illness.”

Ask a Foodie answers reader-submitted questions regarding all things food, nutrition and cooking.

This week, readers wanted to know: Is that whole “beer before liquor” phrase actually true?

Although the tastes of beer and liquor are different, on a chemical level they’re the same. So, what matters is the amount of alcohol you drink – whether it comes from a long island, tall boy or both – and how quickly you drink it.

“The ethanol is the same [in beer and liquor]. The alcohol molecules, as a result of both, are indistinguishable,” said Mike Nolt, associate professor of chemistry at IU South Bend. “It’s simply a presence of the amount of that alcohol that makes it different.”

The amount of alcohol a person’s body can metabolize each hour hinges on a variety of factors, including liver size, body mass and how quickly the booze is consumed. 

Dr. Hingson said that the rapid consumption of any alcohol can cause blood alcohol levels to spike quickly and lead to an increase in blackout symptoms.

“There’s so many other factors that influence the blood alcohol level that people reach and how quickly they reach,” said Hingson. “It depends upon whether or not they’re drinking on an empty stomach, or they have not had sleep and how quickly they consume it. The order of mixing beverages just sounds like a headache to me.”

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