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Is Mezcal Bad For You?



Short answer

Mezcal, when enjoyed in moderation, is not bad for you and can offer potential health benefits, such as antioxidant properties, aid in digestion, and a low-calorie count compared to some alcoholic beverages. However, excessive consumption can lead to significant health risks, including liver disease, cardiovascular issues, and increased cancer risk. The unique distillation process of mezcal introduces various impurities, yet regulated production ensures methanol levels are within safe limits for consumption.



Long answer

Mezcal's Unique Distillation Process and Its Impurities

Mezcal, a traditional Mexican spirit, has gained international popularity not only for its complex flavors but also for its unique distillation process. This process significantly affects the presence of impurities in the final product, which can have implications for health. Understanding these aspects provides insight into the potential impacts of mezcal on your wellness.

The distillation of mezcal begins with the harvesting of agave plants, specifically the core, or "piña." These cores are then cooked, usually in pit ovens lined with lava rocks and filled with wood and charcoal, imbuing the mezcal with its characteristic smoky flavor. After cooking, the piñas are crushed, mixed with water, and left to ferment. The resulting mash is then distilled, often in copper pots or clay stills, a method that harkens back to traditional techniques used for centuries.

Impurities in Mezcal

During distillation, various impurities, known as "congeners," are produced. Congeners are substances other than ethanol produced during fermentation, including methanol, acetone, acetaldehyde, esters, and aldehydes. The presence and concentration of these impurities can vary based on the fermentation and distillation processes used and are what give different mezcals their unique flavors and characteristics.

However, not all impurities are benign. Methanol, for example, is a byproduct of fermentation and is present in small quantities in mezcal. In large amounts, methanol is toxic to humans, affecting the optic nerve and potentially leading to methanol poisoning. Thankfully, the traditional and regulated distillation practices for mezcal ensure that methanol levels remain within safe limits for consumption. Regulatory bodies, such as the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal in Mexico, set strict standards for methanol content in mezcal to protect consumers.

Research indicates that the traditional methods of mezcal production may contribute to a higher variety and concentration of congeners compared to other spirits produced using more modern techniques. A study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry examined the congener profiles of traditional and industrial mezcals, finding that traditional mezcals contained a broader spectrum of congeners. While these compounds contribute to the distinctive taste and aroma of mezcal, they also may influence its physiological effects on the body.

In summary, while the unique distillation process of mezcal contributes to its distinct flavor and cultural significance, it also introduces a range of impurities. It's essential for consumers to be aware of these factors when enjoying mezcal. Moderation and informed consumption are key, as with any alcoholic beverage, to minimize potential health risks associated with impurities.

Alcohol Content: Comparing Mezcal to Other Spirits

When examining the potential health effects of different alcoholic beverages, understanding their alcohol content is crucial. Mezcal, a distilled spirit made from the agave plant native to Mexico, exhibits a unique profile both culturally and nutritionally. Varying in alcohol content, mezcal typically ranges between 40% to 55% alcohol by volume (ABV), positioning it on the higher end of the spectrum compared to other spirits.

Comparison to Other Spirits:

  • Tequila: Like mezcal, tequila is made from agave, but primarily from the blue agave plant in specific regions of Mexico. Tequila generally contains about 40% alcohol by volume, similar to the lower end of mezcal's ABV range. The production processes and regional variations give each spirit its distinctive taste and alcohol content.
  • Vodka: A spirit traditionally made from fermented grains or potatoes, vodka has an ABV of around 40%. Certain premium or overproof vodkas can surpass this, reaching up to 50% ABV, but this is less common. Vodka and mezcal share a broad alcohol content range, though mezcal's range can extend slightly higher due to artisanal production techniques.
  • Whiskey: Whiskey, distilled from fermented grain mash, varies greatly in alcohol content depending on the type and region of production, ranging from 40% to over 60% ABV for certain cask-strength editions. This places whiskey's higher-end offerings in line with the stronger variants of mezcal.
  • Rum: Made from sugarcane byproducts, like molasses, or directly from sugarcane juice, rum typically features an ABV of 40% to 75%, with overproof versions reaching the higher end. This makes some rums stronger than mezcal, though standard offerings are comparable in alcohol content.

The higher alcohol content in spirits like mezcal means they must be consumed with caution to avoid immediate adverse effects such as lowered inhibition, impaired motor skills, and long-term health risks like dependency or liver damage. Understanding these differences is critical for consumers looking to make informed decisions about their alcohol consumption and its potential impact on health.

Health experts and nutritional guidelines suggest moderate consumption if choosing to drink alcohol. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, moderate drinking is defined as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. This moderation is key in mitigating the health risks associated with alcohol consumption, highlighting the importance of awareness regarding the alcohol content in beverages like mezcal and other spirits.

Potential Health Benefits of Mezcal in Moderation

Mezcal, a traditional Mexican spirit distilled from any type of agave plant, has been celebrated for its complex flavors and cultural significance. When consumed in moderation, this beverage can offer an array of potential health benefits, thanks in part to its unique composition. It's crucial, however, to define moderation as defined by health experts: up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.

1. Antioxidant Properties

Mezcal contains antioxidants, which are compounds that help neutralize harmful free radicals in the body. A study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry highlights that agave, the plant used to make mezcal, has compounds that exhibit significant antioxidant activities. These antioxidants can potentially reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer.

2. May Aid in Digestion

In traditional Mexican medicine, mezcal has been used as a digestive aid. The high alcohol content and certain compounds in mezcal can stimulate the production of stomach acids, helping to break down food more efficiently. This can be particularly beneficial after large meals, contributing to a healthier digestive process.

3. Low in Calories Compared to Some Alcoholic Beverages

For those mindful of their caloric intake, mezcal can be a lower-calorie option compared to other spirits and alcoholic beverages. A standard 1.5-ounce serving of mezcal contains roughly 64 calories, dependent on the proof and brand. This makes it a reasonable choice for those trying to maintain a balanced diet while still enjoying social drinks.

4. Potential Blood Sugar Benefits

The agave plant, which mezcal is distilled from, contains agavins— a type of natural sugar that has been shown in early studies to support healthy blood sugar levels. Research published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that unlike other sugars, agavins do not raise blood sugar levels and can even have a prebiotic effect, nourishing beneficial gut bacteria.

5. Presence of Beneficial Plant Compounds

Mezcal is rich in certain compounds that are unique to the agave plant, such as fructans. These compounds have been linked to various health benefits, including improved bone health. According to research, fructans from agave enhance the body’s absorption of minerals, which can contribute to stronger bones.

While mezcal can offer these potential health benefits when consumed in moderation, it's important to remember that overconsumption of any alcohol can lead to negative health effects. Therefore, enjoying mezcal responsibly and in moderation is key to maximizing its potential health benefits.

Chronic Health Risks Associated with Excessive Mezcal Consumption

While mezcal, like other alcoholic beverages, can be enjoyed in moderation as part of a balanced lifestyle, excessive or prolonged consumption carries significant health risks. Understanding these risks is essential for making informed decisions about your alcohol intake. Here, we delve into the chronic health risks associated with excessive mezcal consumption.

One of the primary concerns with excessive alcohol consumption, including mezcal, is its impact on liver health. Chronic heavy drinking can lead to a range of liver issues, from fatty liver disease, which is an early stage of alcohol-related liver disease, to more severe conditions such as alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis. The liver's role in detoxifying the body means it's particularly vulnerable to damage from too much alcohol.

Another major health risk of long-term excessive mezcal drinking is its effect on the cardiovascular system. While moderate alcohol consumption has been linked to certain heart health benefits, excessive drinking can lead to hypertension (high blood pressure), cardiomyopathy (a condition where the heart muscle weakens), arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat), and an increased risk of stroke and heart attack.

Excessive mezcal intake can also increase the risk of certain types of cancer. According to research, there is a strong association between heavy alcohol use and increased risks of cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, breast, and colorectal region. Alcohol consumption is a significant risk factor for these cancers, with the risk increasing alongside the amount consumed.

The relationship between alcohol, including mezcal, and mental health should not be overlooked. Chronic excessive drinking can lead to a range of mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and alcohol dependence or addiction. Alcohol has a complex relationship with mental health, and excessive intake can exacerbate existing mental health problems or contribute to the development of new issues.

Furthermore, chronic overconsumption of alcohol can lead to a weakened immune system, making the body more susceptible to infections. This effect can be particularly detrimental over time, affecting the body's ability to fight off both common illnesses and more severe infections.

It's also important to note that chronic excessive drinking can impact digestive health, leading to problems such as gastritis, ulcers, and pancreatitis, which is inflammation of the pancreas. These conditions can have serious consequences and further complicate an individual's overall health.

In summary, while enjoying mezcal in moderation can be part of a balanced lifestyle, it's crucial to be aware of the chronic health risks associated with excessive consumption. These risks include liver disease, cardiovascular problems, increased cancer risk, mental health issues, a weakened immune system, and digestive health problems. If you're concerned about your alcohol intake and its impact on your health, consider speaking with a healthcare professional who can provide personalized advice and support.

Comparing Mezcal and Tequila: Is One Healthier?

When considering mezcal and tequila, it's important to drill down into their production methods, nutritional content, and the effects they may have on health. At first glance, these two spirits might seem quite similar — both are derived from agave, a plant native to Mexico. However, the distinctions in their making and chemical profiles could influence a health-oriented comparison.

Firstly, the source of agave is where mezcal and tequila begin to differ. Tequila is produced exclusively from blue agave, whereas mezcal can be made from over 30 types of agave, offering a wider variance in taste and possibly, nutritional subtleties. The production process further differentiates them; mezcal is typically made using traditional methods where the agave hearts are cooked inside earthen pits lined with lava rocks, giving mezcal its distinctive smoky flavor. Tequila's production involves steaming agave in industrial ovens, which results in a smoother, sweeter flavor without the smokiness.

From a nutritional standpoint, both mezcal and tequila are low in calories, with an average of about 64 calories per 1.5-ounce serving, containing no carbohydrates, fats, or proteins — making them relatively similar in their basic nutritional content. However, the way in which the body metabolizes these spirits may bring about subtle health considerations.

Research on the health benefits of spirits distilled from agave is still in its infancy, but some studies suggest that the sugars present in agave, known as agavins, may have a prebiotic effect, encouraging healthy gut bacteria growth. This potential benefit seems not to be affected significantly by the different production processes of mezcal and tequila. However, the more traditional, artisanal methods used for some mezcal varieties could mean they retain more of the agavins and other compounds that might be beneficial to health.

Moreover, the alcohol content in both beverages plays a significant role in their health implications. Consuming alcohol in moderation is key to preventing negative health outcomes, with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommending up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men as the limit for moderate drinking. Excessive consumption of either mezcal or tequila can lead to numerous health issues, including liver damage, addiction, weight gain, and increased risk of chronic diseases.

When deciding whether mezcal or tequila is healthier, the answer may lie more in the method of consumption than in the inherent qualities of each beverage. Opting for pure, high-quality versions of either spirit, consumed in moderation, is likely the healthiest choice. Mixing these spirits with high-sugar or high-calorie mixers can negate any potential marginal health benefits.

In conclusion, while mezcal and tequila are similar in their basic nutritional composition, the differences in their production could suggest that mezcal, particularly those produced through more traditional methods, may offer slight health advantages due to higher retention of beneficial compounds like agavins. Nonetheless, the most critical factor in determining the health effects of these spirits is how they are consumed — moderation being the key to enjoying their unique flavors without adverse health effects.

Frequently asked questions

Individuals with diabetes should be cautious when consuming alcohol, including Mezcal, due to its potential to affect blood sugar levels. Although Mezcal is distilled from agave, which contains agavins that don't raise blood sugar, the alcohol content can lower blood sugar levels, necessitating careful monitoring and moderation.

The smoky flavor of Mezcal, resulting from the traditional pit oven cooking of the agave piñas, does not directly impact its health effects in a significant way. While the flavor profile differs markedly from non-smoky spirits, health implications are more closely tied to alcohol content and the presence of impurities like congeners, rather than the smokiness itself.

The use of over 30 types of agave in Mezcal production could introduce subtle variations in the spirit's nutritional content, mainly through differing concentrations of compounds such as antioxidants and agavins. However, the primary difference lies in flavor profiles, with the nutritional differences being relatively minor and not significantly impacting the overall health effects of moderate Mezcal consumption.

For individuals on a weight loss diet, Mezcal can be a reasonable option when consumed in moderation due to its relatively low calorie content (about 64 calories per 1.5-ounce serving). However, mixing Mezcal with high-calorie or sugary mixers should be avoided to maintain its lower-calorie advantage.

Ask a question about Mezcal and our team will publish the answer as soon as possible.

Possible short-term side effects

  • impaired motor skills
  • lowered inhibition

Possible long-term side effects

  • liver disease
  • cardiovascular problems
  • increased cancer risk
  • mental health issues
  • weakened immune system
  • digestive health problems

Ingredients to be aware of

  • methanol
  • congeners


  • antioxidant properties
  • aids in digestion
  • low in calories
  • potential blood sugar benefits
  • presence of beneficial plant compounds

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Diane Saleem
Published on: 05-02-2024

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Diane Saleem
Published on: 05-02-2024

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