The following conversation you are about to read is in no way exaggerated or altered in any way; it probably literally went just like this:
“I looooove shrimp,” said Jane Doe.
“Oh, I don’t eat seafood, to me it seems far too risky to eat. Plus, every time a family member has gotten food poisoning it’s from seafood.”
“Well, I eat shrimp without fear because I take a shot of alcohol before I eat any seafood,” exclaimed Jane Doe.
“What? Why does that matter?” I was completely flabbergasted as to what that correlation was.
“You don’t know?” she said. “They say if you take a shot of alcohol, like vodka for example, it helps kill any bacteria that could make you sick in your stomach! I do it every time I eat seafood, and so far? I haven’t been sick.”
Now, if you know me, not only was I insanely skeptical, but I started smirking while thinking my favorite phrase: correlation does not imply causation. Beyond all that, if this was something that was so widely known, why weren’t people capitalizing on it? Why wasn’t there a great need for seafood with a shot?
And, considering the 4th of July was yesterday, I figured why not get festive with today’s article. We’re getting to the bottom of this scenario and asking the most important question of all time: but does it work?
Upon talking with Jane Doe (no really, a conversation like that DID happen at an old job) I immediately wrote off her “shot with seafood” concept. I couldn’t imagine that something as simple as a shot of alcohol, or even just drinking wine and beer, could help prevent food poisoning. It sounded a bit far fetched, but as we’ve established time and time again, I’m pretty skeptical of magical fixes for seemingly uncontrollable circumstances.
But, it did get me thinking… Alcohol based sanitizers, while different than drinking alcohol, do help kill bacteria and germs on your hands. In theory, why couldn’t this work the same way? Instead of using hand sanitizer, you’re just drinking your sanitizer. Well that came out weirder than I intended. It also sounds gross, and harmful, so please don’t actually drink hand sanitizer!
While I’ve yet to try it out for myself, it got my brain wheels going just enough to help me begin to research the topic.
When I first asked the all-knowing Google “alcohol prevents food poisoning”, one of the first articles I found was one by the NY Times. In it, they did the same thing that I’m doing right now, which is research and explain the facts. What they found is that alcohol of at least 10% proof or higher would be needed in order to simply reduce the severity of potential foodborne illness. One study they quoted in particular involved Hepatitis A contamination of oysters, and the study found that those who had partook in several alcoholic beverages either did not get Hepatitis A or it greatly reduced the severity of the illness.
The reason for this, they said, is because alcohol increases the secretion of stomach acid. What they didn’t elaborate on is why the additional secretions of stomach acid could help, so I took to Google again for a brief side mission.
Apparently, salmonella (specifically) can be killed with high levels of acidity. Our stomachs typically sit around 1.5-3.5 pH, which is well high enough to kill salmonella. However, after we eat, our stomach pH temporarily rises to 6.0 (almost neutral) then lowers again for digestion. According to Nature.com, salmonella can survive in that pH level, which is why salmonella can infect us despite it’s ability to be killed in our stomach acid.
What all this means is despite our stomach’s pH temporarily rising when we eat, if we drink it causes our stomach to secrete more of the acid (thus making it more acidic), it is possible that if one consumed enough alcohol it could keep the stomach’s pH low enough to ultimately kill salmonella prior to infecting the host.
Neat right? But the above information really just talked about salmonella, and didn’t really delve into other viruses and bacteria. If you’re interested in taking a read, there’s this very scientific article regarding viral infections and their sensitivities to pH that might help you make some conclusions on your own. Or, it might confuse the mess out of you, like it did with me. I will, however, off the TL;DR? version, which is that many viruses are pH sensitive, and explains how the pH of the human body plays a huge role in how viruses replicate.
But I digress…
By the end of the article, the NY Times felt that while it may not 100% prevent you from getting sick, it could drastically reduce the severity of your illness. However, one research effort by the NY Times isn’t enough to really garner a case here. So off to Google I went again in search of information.
What was interesting, especially after researching a little bit about salmonella specifically, is that I found that all the other cases of effective prevention and/or reduction of symptoms from foodborne illness came from salmonella infections. Or, at least, the ones that have been studied.
It appears that whether it’s a stroke of interesting scientific luck, or simply coincidence, most food poisoning cases that are evaluated for alcohol as a preventative measure against infection have come back with salmonella, except for one case that discussed Hepatitis A.
You can see those abstracts by clicking here and here, and also by reading an article on it here. There was one other case where listeria was found to be effected by alcohol consumption, but like with both of these situations, the case numbers to research are very small currently.
One thing that is worth noting is that most of these cases include either a very specific ABV number (such as the beverage containing 10% or more ABV), mentioned how many drinks were consumed (it seems the more you drank, the lower your risk of infection), or they specifically mentioned red wine as the drink of choice. Red wine has been found to have antimicrobial properties, and conveniently has an average of 11.5% to 13.5% ABV.
I’m actually feeling very good going into this final thoughts. Usually, at this point, I feel like I’m going to be slashing dreams and opening myself up for extreme criticism. I still feel like I could open myself up for hate mail, but I’m excited to give you my final thoughts on this.
But before I give you my opinion on whether or not I think this works, I do want to leave you with one caveat of information:
What the research world is lacking is exploration of other virulent cases of foodborne illnesses, like e.coli, shigella, noro, botulism, and many more, in relation to alcohol. I’m not sure if this is because salmonella and listeria are more common than the others, or if there hasn’t been an outbreak involving other illnesses that happened in a mass setting like a dinner or catered meal that probed further research. Either way, that’s a huge piece to the puzzle that I think will really help solidify whether or not this is a valid way to prevent food poisoning.
Now, with all the research that I have read, I actually think I can say this could work – at least if you have salmonella, listeria and/or Hepatitis A. The issue with this method, for me, is that you just don’t know if something is or isn’t contaminated. To me, I’m not always in the mood for alcohol, and I’m not going to drink it “just in case” at every meal.
There’s also the part where it may not entirely prevent it. Many studies found that it wasn’t a 100% preventative measure, and many times it just reduced the severity. Of course, that in itself could be seen as a worthy reason to try something. After all, they have TamiFlu for influenza that is supposed to reduce the severity and longevity of the flu virus.
And, like most methods of preventative care, why you do it and how frequently you do it is absolutely something to keep in mind. Moderation is key, and acting out of fear is the wrong reason to partake in a ritual that could (but not definitively) keep you safe.
Too Long; Didn’t Read?
Alcohol as a preventative measure and/or symptom reducer for food poisoning is something that I think I can say yes to, to a degree.
In the case of salmonella, listeria and Hepatitis A, the research has found that drinking at least 10% proof and/or multiple glasses of red wine can help reduce your risk of foodborne illness. However, there isn’t a lot of reserach (I’d go as far as to say none) in regards to other illnesses like e.coli, shigella, botulism, noro, and more.
While alcohol can reduce your risks of foodborne illness, moderation is key! Foodborne illness is something that is less frequent than we’d imagine, and extremely uncontrollable! And, in an infamous warning, correlation does not imply causation. Just because it seems to work, does not mean it actually did. There are so many factors that play into why we get sick, many of which do not get treated by a doctor, so keep that in mind too!
Well this was actually super enlightening! I’m so happy I can actually give good news on BDIW? this week instead of my normal, “Sorry… this doesn’t work, despite popular belief.”
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