Absinthe, or 'Green Fairy', believed to be 19th century artists and writers' drink for enhancing creativity, owes its mind-altering and toxic side-effects to its high alcohol content, and not a compound called thujone, states a new study.
A team of scientists from Europe and the United States, conducted this most comprehensive analysis of old bottles of original absinthe, once gulped down by the likes of van Gogh, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso to expand consciousness with psychedelic effects, to conclude that its high-alcohol was the main culprit of the toxic side-effects of the green aperitif.
They found that even if its consumed diluted with water, absinthe contained about 70 percent alcohol, giving it a 140-proof wallop. Most gin, vodka, and whiskey are 80 - 100-proof and contain 40-50 percent alcohol or ethanol.
Absinthe had a legendary status in late 19th-Century Paris among bohemian artists and writer and later its popularity spread through Europe and to the United States. But, illness and violent episodes among drinkers gave it the reputation as a dangerous drug, and it was banned in Europe and elsewhere.
In the new study, researchers led by Dirk W. Lachenmeier analyzed 13 samples of preban absinthe from sealed bottles - "the first time that such a wide ranging analysis of absinthe from the preban era has been attempted," they said.
The study also focused on thujone, considered to be the "active" ingredient in absinthe and believed to cause absinthe madness" and "absinthism," a collection of symptoms including hallucinations, facial contractions, numbness, and dementia.
"It is certainly at the root of absinthe's reputation as being more drug than drink," said Lachenmeier.
But, the study reported very small concentrations of thujone, which was much less than that estimated previously and not sufficient to explain absinthism.
"All things considered, nothing besides ethanol was found in the absinthes that was able to explain the syndrome of absinthism," said Lachenmeier.
He said that scientific data cannot explain preban absinthe's reputation as a psychedelic substance. But he pointed out that recent historical research on absinthism concluded that the condition probably was alcoholism.
"Today it seems a substantial minority of consumers want these myths to be true, even if there is no empirical evidence that they are. It is hoped that this paper will go some way to refute at least the first of these myths, conclusively demonstrating that the thujone content of a representative selection of preban absinthe... fell within the modern EU limit," said Lachenmeier.
The study will be published in an upcoming issue of the American Chemical Society's bi-weekly Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.