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FRANCE EXPLAINED

Digestif: Do France’s after-dinner drinks actually help digestion?

Drinks like Cognac, Calvados and Armagnac are popular in France and thought to aid digestion after a big meal - but does any actual science back this up?

Cognac is among the digestifs popular in France. But its health benefits are pretty much non-existant.
Cognac is among the digestifs popular in France. But its health benefits are pretty much non-existant. (Photo by GEORGES GOBET / AFP)

Alcoholic beverages thought to help with digestion have existed since the middle ages – or perhaps even earlier. 

Monks and alchemists in Europe used herbs and spices to make drinks like Hippocras which were thought not only to have medicinal properties but also to be aphrodisiacs. King Louis XIV of France was known to be a fan. 

Digestifs remain highly popular in France today. A tipple of calvados, cognac or armagnac after a hearty meal is seen as a luxurious way to help the digestive system. 

At the other end are apéritifs (apéro) such as kir, white wine or pastis that are thought to sharpen the appetite before a meal.

But the science suggests that digestifs do little to aid digestion. 

A 2010 scientific paper titled, ‘Effect on gastric function and symptoms of drinking wine, black tea, or schnapps with a Swiss cheese fondue’, found that consuming alcohol after a meal actually slows down the digestive system by up to 50 percent. 

READ MORE Cigarettes and alcohol: How young French people differ from older generations

The reason for this is that alcohol blocks the secretion of gastrin – a hormone that that stimulates the release of gastric acid, which is a key component of the digestive process. The stronger the alcohol, the greater this blocking effect is. 

Alcohol is also highly calorific. In consuming it, drinkers are adding to the overall amount of calories that the body has to digest.  

The only physiological benefit of drinking a digestif after a meal is that alcohol is a vasodilator, meaning it opens up blood vessels and prevents muscles from tightening. This allows the stomach to expand and can bring a short-term feeling of relief if you have eaten too much food. 

Whatever the science says, French people seem unlikely to stop drinking digestifs anytime soon. 

Digestifs maybe don’t have the digestive qualities that we attribute to them but the ritual means that they have a place. They allow us to stretch an evening on and have conversations, to relax, to chat, to laugh and to take our time,” writes sommelier Véronique Rivest

Member comments

  1. A shot of kiwi eau de vie, not the shop bought stuff, after a large meal always helps. Also, a shot in coffee keeps one alive.😛🙃

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FOOD & DRINK

Five of France’s new Michelin foodie hotspots

As Michelin publishes its 2022 guide, here are five of the most exciting new entries into the hallowed 'bible' of French gastronomy.

Five of France's new Michelin foodie hotspots

Here are five must-visit venues of gastronomic delight for food lovers.

READ ALSO New Michelin guide celebrates ‘resilient’ French cuisine

Plénitude – Paris

It’s only been open seven months, but the Paris restaurant – on the first floor of Cheval Blanc Paris – now has three stars, awarded to chef Arnaud Donckele in Cognac on Tuesday. Picking up three stars all at once is almost unheard of – only Yannick Alléno achieved the same feat in 2015 with the Pavillon Ledoyen in the 8th arrondissement.

Broths, vinaigrettes, creams, veloutés, juices are at the heart of the cuisine at Plénitude. A seasonal six-course Symphony Menu costs €395, while the Sail Away Together menu of three savoury dishes and one sweet is €320.

La Villa Madie – Cassis, Bouches-du-Rhône

Another new three-star venue listed in this year’s guide came as something of a surprise, by all accounts. Dimitri and Marielle Droisneau’s restaurant in the south of France overlooks the Mediterranean.

“We took this house nine years ago. We had a baby, we have a second one now. We live in the villa. We work in a paradise,” chef Dimitri said at the ceremony in Cognac.

The cuisine follows the seasons, and uses carefully selected local produce. As such, the menu changes daily according to what’s available. The Menu Anse de Corton – a starter, a fish course, a meat course, and a sweet treat – costs €130, while the six-course Menu Espasado “Cap Canaille” is €180.

Plaza Athénée – Paris

Top Chef series three winner Jean Imbert was one of a number of former contestants on the show to win a star for his restaurant in the palace le Plaza Athénée – with the jury praising his “impressive revival of the greatest classics of French gastronomy”.

Guillaume Pape – a finalist in series 10, also picked up his first star for  L’Ebrum, in Brest; as did series nine finalist Victor Mercier, for FIEF in the ninth arrondissement, honoured for producing “empowering cuisine, made exclusively using French produce”. Mercier was also named Young Chef of the Year.

The self-titled Menu de Jean at Plaza Athénée costs €296

Villa La Coste – Bouches-du-Rhône

Continuing the Top Chef theme, judge Hélène Darroze – who already runs the three-star Hélène Darroze at The Connaught in London – was awarded a star for her restaurant in the south of France, as was fellow-judge Philippe Etchebest for his latest venture in Bordeaux.

Local vegetables and fruit are the stars of the dining show at Villa La Coste, with meat and fish playing an accompanying role. A three-course lunch menu is €75, while a full dinner menu is €155.

Domaine Riberach: La Coopérative – Bélesta, Ariège 

One of six new restaurants to be awarded a Green Star for its seasonal food and it’s determined approach to ‘sustainable gastronomy’. This year’s six Green Star winners join 81 establishments which received the award last year in France.

“Slow food” is the order of the day, with menus created based – as is often the case – on the seasons, the market and chef Julien Montassié’s instinct. The chief rule is that food must be local – “0 km is our motto”, boasts the website.

The six-course Menu Latitude is €85 without wine. A three-course Menu Km0 is €49 – and a children’s two-course menu is €18.

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