Q: I have been invited to a wine tasting I have to drive to. I may end up tasting 25 or more wines over the course of an evening, but I plan on spitting and dumping so that I'll consume very little. But how much alcohol do you actually absorb when spitting? And would it still affect my breath enough to trigger a high Breathalyzer reading?
A: Excellent question! Your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) after drinking depends on a wide range of factors, including your gender, weight, body-mass index, physical condition, genes, whether you've eaten recently and more. It only takes a few drinks to put you over the legal U.S. limit of 0.08 percent, and if you don't spit, you can estimate roughly how many glasses it would take to exceed that. A Breathalyzer test reads deep-lung alcohol, not blood alcohol, but it can pick up alcohol that remains in the mouth or throat if you test immediately after tasting.
In a study published in the journal Wine Studies in 2012, researchers from the Meander Medical Center in the Netherlands set about to answer your specific question: Can enough alcohol be absorbed by the lining of the mouth when tasting and spitting to increase BAC? Ten participants were given 15 milliliters (approximately a half-ounce) each of five white wines and five red wines to swish and spit, rinsing with water in between, over the course of one hour; their BAC was measured 15 minutes after the last wine. A week later, the experiment was repeated, but the subjects drank 15 milliliters of each wine. No food was consumed, and the wines ranged from 11.5 percent to 13.5 percent alcohol.
Even though the individuals drank only 150 milliliters (about 5 ounces, or 1 glass of wine), five of them measured a BAC above the Netherlands' legal limit of 0.05 percent (versus 0.08 in the United States). In contrast, when volunteers spit the samples, they all had low (but detectable) BACs under the legal driving limit, averaging 0.0026 percent.
While spitting everything should keep you safe, it's best to be extra cautious. Most of us end up drinking at least a small amount of wine during tastings, which can add up, and alcohol levels under 0.08 can still result in impaired abilities. Food consumption can help slow the absorption of alcohol, but remember that it takes roughly an hour to metabolize the alcohol in just one glass of wine. A designated driver is always the best choice, so you can truly enjoy your favorite wines!
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