Your Brain on Food

How chemicals control your thoughts and feelings.

A Brief History of Wicked Green Drinks

Elixirs from the past the still haunt us today.

This past weekend I had the great pleasure of seeing the Broadway play Wicked. The play begins with a woman being seduced by a green drink contained within a crystalline carafe. During the mid-1800s, a very similar emerald-colored drink was very popular in Europe, especially among artists and playwrights. The ritual was to pour the emerald-green liquid slowly over sugar held in a perforated spoon and then diluted with cold water. The taste was very bitter, and the drink was said to produce a "lucid drunkenness." The author of "The Wizard of Oz," Lyman Frank Baum, who was born in 1856, was likely familiar with the mythologies surrounding its use.

The drink was made from an extract of wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) which when mixed with alcohol produced a bright green drink called absinthe. During the late 1800s, the French psychiatrist Valentin Magnan discovered that wormwood oil produced inappropriately increased brain activity-in short, an epileptic reaction. It was thought at the time that the effects of chronic abuse of absinthe, such as contractions of the face muscles and extremities, anxiety, paranoia, energy loss, numbness, headaches, delirium, paralysis, and death, resulted from the existence of a substance called thujone. The American Journal of Pharmacy wrote in 1868 that "it's an ignoble poison, destroying life not until it has more or less brutalized its votaries, and made driveling idiots of them." A campaign against thujone ensued and resulted, by the early 20th century, in the banning of absinthe in many countries, including in the United States.

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Today, however, it is believed that the manner in which absinthe was once prepared would have produced only very low levels of thujone in a typical serving. Therefore, the symptoms noted among chronic users of absinthe were more likely due to the excessive consumption of improperly distilled spirits rather than to the effects of thujone. To be sure, thujone can produce excitatory effects in small doses, but these effects are mild. Thujone can also be found in very low amounts in drinks such as vermouth (from the German wermuth for wormwood), chartreuse, and Benedictine.
In 1862, the widespread popularity of absinthe led Angelo Mariani, a Corsican chemist, to combine a Bordeaux wine with coca leaf extracts to produce Vin Mariani. The plant extracts gave this drink a greenish tint which allowed its comparison to absinthe and probably increased its profitability. The labels displayed testimonials from Pope Leo XIII, who gave it the Vatican's gold medal of appreciation, as well as from President Ulysses S. Grant and from Thomas Edison, who claimed that it helped him stay awake longer to complete his experiments. Vin Mariani was such a commercial success that many other alcohol-based green-colored tonics containing coca leaf extracts were introduced in the late 1880s. Another quite successful green-colored tonic was introduced by John S. Pemberton in 1884. Pemberton called his drink "A French wine of coca, ideal tonic." Later, in 1886, he removed the alcohol, replaced cocaine with an extract from the kola nut, and called it Coca-Cola.

But why combine coca leaf extracts with wine in the first place? The reason is that the combined effect of these two drugs upon the brain is far more euphoragenic, and therefore more addicting, than either compound alone. When coca leaf extracts are combined with alcohol the mixture forms a powerful psychoactive compound called coca-ethylene, which is more lipid lipid-soluble than cocaine and thus enters the brain faster and produces far more pleasurable feelings.

However, there is no recorded evidence that these green elixirs lead to the birth of green babies.

© Gary L.Wenk, Ph.D. author of Your Brain on Food (Oxford, 2010); http://faculty.psy.ohio-state.edu/wenk/

Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience & Molecular Virology, Immunology and Medical Genetics at the Ohio State University.

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