Does Eating Yeast Before a Night Out Mitigate Drunkenness?
That's what Esquire's Aaron Goldfarb reports Jim Koch said. As the co-founder and chairman of the Boston Beer Company, Koch could use a trick to avoid getting sloppy at all the alcohol-soaked events he attends. The tip came to him by way of his late friend, beer legend and biochemist "Dr. Joe" —or Joseph Owades, PhD.
Owades speculated that consuming a teaspoon of active yeast per beer—add it to yogurt to make it easier to eat—before a night of drinking will mitigate the effects of the alcohol. Koch claims he's been following this advice with great success for years. The science behind the theory is thus: yeast contains an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenases (ADH), which breaks apart alcohol molecules into carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Normally, this process occurs in the liver as your body metabolizes your favorite adult beverage but the thinking is that with yeast in your stomach, the alcohol will be broken down into its harmless constituents before it reaches the liver, thereby saving your bloodstream and your dignity.
Esquire put this science to a rather, well, unscientific test with several boozy experiments. They concluded that while it's not so good at counteracting the effects of binge drinking, it will keep you lucid (and, later, relatively hangover-free) for a night of "responsible" drinking over many hours.
As an embarrassing lightweight who doesn't drink beer (Amaretto sours are my drink of choice), I decided that rather than test this, I would reach out to some food scientists for an informed opinion. The fine folks at Pennsylvania State University's Food Science Department were happy to help.
For the most part, they took issue with the presumed simplicity of the reaction Koch is counting on. So while Owades' science isn't wrong, per se, he's ignoring other factors, like the stomach environment. But the three professors who weighed in cited different levels of skepticism. First, there was Dr. John Hayes:
It sounds far fetched, and I highly doubt it works. However, until someone does a carefully controlled empirical study, we can't be certain. Still, I personally wouldn’t risk a DUI doing this.
Dr. Ryan Elias was more encouraged, saying, "Brewer's yeast (S. cerevisiae) are pretty good at making the enzyme in question here (alcohol dehydrogenase), as they need it to survive high ethanolic environments (e.g. beer, wine)." He also speculated that the yeast could conceivably "perform their work at a rate that's competitive with absorption in vivo." However, he would only go so far as to grant that "some elements" made sense, stipulating that we need to establish the impact of the stomach's pH level.
In response, Dr. Joshua Lambert offered the context to dismantle Owades' theory:
I don't know what the survival rate of yeast is under stomach pH. Some of it does survive, but I'm not sure it can compete. As for the enzyme, the optimal pH for activity is between 8.6 and 9 (i.e. basic) and it needs a cofactor, which while abundant inside the yeast is probably not readily available in the stomach or small intestine.
But then how does Koch stay on his feet while many beers deep? And how can you drink your friends under the table or, if you're me, maintain your composure after more than one Amaretto sour? Lambert has some thoughts on that as well:
I think it is much more likely that the reason that Jim Koch can drink beer all night without getting drunk is an adaptive response in his own body. Alcohol dehydrogenase and cytochrome P450 2E1, which also metabolizes alcohol, are inducible. The activity of the enzyme goes up after exposure. Regular alcohol consumers have higher levels than those that don't imbibe. It is an interesting story, and scientifically possible, but much less likely than an adaptive response by the drinker's liver.
You hear that? If you want to be able to imbibe like Jim Koch, drink up!