Acetaldehyde: A Good Reason For the Word of Wisdom

Chemical composition of Acetaldehyde. (UAwiki, Wikipedia)

Chemical composition and structure of Acetaldehyde. (UAwiki, Wikipedia)

Ever since the revelation referred to as the “Word of Wisdom,” and now contained in D&C 89, was given to the Prophet Joseph Smith there has been talk of whether or not it is an effective physical health standard. I think it is perhaps beyond argument that it is effective spiritually, at least for those who believe that obedience to God’s word will bring them closer to Him (John 14:23), but the revelation also notes physical and mental benefits for keeping this word of wisdom, which can also have spiritual side effects:

  • “shall receive health in their navel and marrow to their bones” (v18)
  • “shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures” (v19)
  • “shall run and not be weary” (v20)
  • “shall walk and not faint” (v20)
  • “the destroying angel shall pass by them, as the children of Israel, and not slay them” (v21)

I shared my relative’s story, Creed Haymond, in my last post (or rather Creed shared it), which is a clear example of obedience to the Word of Wisdom blessing one to be able to “run and not be weary” and “walk and not faint.”

But there are many who still question the physical benefits of the Word of Wisdom, for one reason or another. For example, some might point to studies which show that there might be a health benefit to a low consumption of alcohol, as evidence against the Word of Wisdom. However, I believe there exists an abundance of scientific evidence that the proscriptions contained in the Word of Wisdom are for our general health benefit, both physically and mentally, and therefore also spiritually, much of which evidence has come to light since the revelation was given to Joseph Smith in 1833.  I will give only one good example, which I just today came across.

Acetaldehyde (also known as ethanal) is an “organic chemical compound with the formula CH3 CHO, sometimes abbreviated by chemists as MeCHO (Me = methyl).”  It occurs naturally in nature, and also through industrial processes. What makes it interesting in this context is that this single chemical is present in all of the main proscriptions of the Word of Wisdom, namely the consumption of coffee, tea, alcohol, and tobacco. It’s presence in coffee and tea is perhaps minor, but it is a large component of both alcohol drinking and tobacco smoke, which can lead to serious health consequences.

In alcohol drinking, this chemical is produced by the oxidation of ethanol, when alcohol in the liver is broken down by an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase. As such, acetaldehyde is a byproduct and a much more toxic substance (as much as 30x) than the alcohol from which it derives. It is associated with most of the clinical and pathogenic effects of alcohol consumption, including hangovers. Not only is it toxic, but mutagenic, and carcinogenic, causing such diseases as cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer.

A combination of topical and digestive tract acetaldehyde may also result from drinking alcohol, as many bacterial microbes produce the chemical from ethanol, and so it can accumulate in the saliva during drinking, and in the esophagus, stomach and colon, which can cause digestive tract cancers including esophageal cancer, stomach cancer, and colorectal cancer. It can cause a number of adverse reactions in humans, when it comes in contact with the skin or ingested:

Acetaldehyde is an irritant of the skin, eyes, mucous membranes, throat and respiratory tract. Symptoms of exposure to this compound include nausea, vomiting, headache. These symptoms may not happen immediately. It has a general narcotic action and large doses can even cause death by respiratory paralysis. It may also cause drowsiness, delirium, hallucinations and loss of intelligence. Exposure may also cause severe damage to the mouth, throat and stomach; accumulation of fluid in the lungs, chronic respiratory disease, kidney and liver damage, throat irritation, dizziness, reddening and swelling of the skin.1

In addition, some people have an inherited genetic mutation which causes the body to not produce the enzymes necessary to break down acetaldehyde, namely aldehyde dehydrogenase (caused by a variant in the ALDH2 gene). Such a genetic deficiency can cause a build up of acetaldehyde in the body while drinking, which can cause serious side effects such Alcohol Flush Syndrome, and has been associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s.

Similarly, acetaldehyde is a significant element in tobacco smoke, and so it is brought in to the body via the lungs and through swallowing while smoking (it is dissolved into the saliva). It also works synergistically with the nicotine, increasing smoking’s addictive nature. Likewise it is found in marijuana smoke. Studies in marijuana showed that the presence of acetaldehyde in the smoke causes DNA damage, or mutations in DNA, which can also cause cancers such as lung cancer.

It is clear that acetaldehyde is a serious danger to the physical health of our bodies and minds. I think it is interesting that some of the reactions of the brain to acetaldehyde are “delirium, hallucinations and loss of intelligence,” not to mention the mentally degenerative nature of Alzheimer’s. This is insightful in light of verse 19 of D&C 89, which calls attention to increases in wisdom and knowledge by obedience to the Word of Wisdom. The digestive tract has often been associated with the navel and nourishment (v18), and this can have severe problems, as we’ve seen, when it comes in contact with acetaldehyde. When the chemical is produced in the liver from alcohol, it enters the blood which has its source in bone marrow (v18). And, of course, the many problems associated with human contact with acetaldehyde can ultimately be fatal (v21).

Yet most of our understanding of acetaldehyde came long after 1833, when studies in organic chemistry matured. Although the chemical was first isolated in 1774 by Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele, it wasn’t until 1835 that the structure and composition of the chemical was obtained by chemist Justus Von Liebig in Germany, who also named the chemical, two years after the Word of Wisdom was revealed. Further observations of the chemical were made in 1881 by Kutscherow. The deleterious nature of the chemical (as noted in this post) was likely only beginning to be understood much later, in the twentieth century. Much of this understanding has come to light just in the past few years, such as the genetic correlations.

This is just one example of how the proscribed substances of the Word of Wisdom can be detrimental to us physically and mentally, and therefore also spiritually. Acetaldehyde is only one of the many harmful chemicals in these substances, and therefore only one of many reasons why the Lord may have counseled the Saints that these were “not for the belly” (D&C 89:7).

  1. Acetaldehyde, Wikipedia. []


  1. John Dawson
    Posted April 21, 2013 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    While your article is true it is a bit misleading. The body, under normal conditions, handles acetaldehyde without any negative effects. It is only when it is in large quantities, such as with binge drinking that the build up occurs. I’m not trying to advocate breaking the word of wisdom but it is important that we don’t overstate or stretch the truth to fit our ideas.

  2. Posted April 21, 2013 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    Thank you for your comment, but I disagree. There is nothing about acetaldehyde that is good for the body. While the body may be able to break it down in small amounts (which could be because it occurs naturally in our environment), that doesn’t mean we should intentionally injest it or substances which produce it. That would be like saying because our bodies can fully clot and heal wounds that intentional self-inflicted bleeding isn’t harmful. Acetaldehyde, even in small doses, can have serious health consequences, particularly for people with the ALDH2 genetic deficiency, which includes a large number of those of Asian descent.

  3. Nate W.
    Posted April 21, 2013 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    “What makes it interesting in this context is that this single chemical is present in all of the main proscriptions of the Word of Wisdom, namely the consumption of coffee, tea, alcohol, and tobacco.”

    Acetaldehyde is also present in fruit, vegetables, dairy products and bread in as similar concentrations. I agree with John Dawson—don’t stretch the truth to fit your ideas…

  4. Posted April 21, 2013 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

    Actually, the concentrations of acetaldehyde produced by the metabolic breakdown of alcohol and in tobacco smoke are radically higher than in those foods, which is why I focused on these two, and noted that the amount in coffee and tea was minor in comparison. Here is a sampling of the average concentrations in common fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and bread:

    • Yogurt with fruits 4.4 mg/kg
    • Cheddar cheese 0.22 mg/kg
    • Pineapple 0.63 mg/kg
    • Pear 3.74 mg/kg
    • Lemon 3.92 mg/kg
    • Cucumber 1.56 mg/kg
    • Tomato 0.05 mg/kg
    • Onion 1.06 mg/kg
    • Wheat and rye bread 1.5 mg/kg
    • Sour milk 0.19 mg/kg

    (Michael Uebelacker and Dirk W. Lachenmeier, Quantitative Determination of Acetaldehyde in Foods Using Automated Digestion with Simulated Gastric Fluid Followed by Headspace Gas Chromatography, J Autom Methods Manag Chem. 2011; 2011: 907317.

    Compare that with the concentrations produced by the oxidation of alcohol in the liver, and in tobacco smoke. As the study above notes, “A first-exposure estimation resulted in a daily acetaldehyde intake of less than 0.1mg/kg bodyweight from food, which is considerably lower than the exposures from alcohol consumption or tobacco smoking” (emphasis added).

    For one point of comparison, here is the amount of acetaldehyde found directly in alcoholic beverages, even outside of ethanol metabolism. (It is certainly much higher after ethanol metabolism in the liver.)

    • Beer 9 mg/l
    • Wine 34 mg/l
    • Spirits 66 mg/l
    • Fortified wines 118 mg/l

    (Lachenmeier DW, Sohnius EM, The role of acetaldehyde outside ethanol metabolism in the carcinogenicity of alcoholic beverages: evidence from a large chemical survey, Food Chem Toxicol. 2008 Aug; 46(8):2903-11.

    It is also interesting to note that just recently in October 2009 the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) upgraded acetaldehyde in association with alcohol consumption to Group 1, the highest possible classification, meaning it is “carcinogenic to humans,” in addition to reaffirming Group 1 status of tobacco smoking, second-hand smoke, and smokeless tobacco as also “carcinogenic to humans.” (International Agency for Research on Cancer Monograph Working Group, Special Report: Policy A review of human carcinogens—Part E: tobacco, areca nut, alcohol, coal smoke, and salted fish. The Lancet 2009 10, 1033–1034.

    I’m not sure exactly what truth you think I’m stretching.

  5. DB
    Posted April 22, 2013 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    You claim that section 89 of the D&C proscribes the consumption of alcohol which is untrue. It proscribes the consumption of strong drinks and wine except for it’s use in the sacrament. However, mild drinks made from barley are allowed. Mild drinks made from barley would be beer which, as you explained in your last comment, contain much less alcohol than wine or spirits (strong drinks). So, section 89 does allow the consumption of limited amounts of wine and the consumption of beer.

    Now, some ignorant folks will claim that mild drinks made from barley are not beer but some other modern non-alcoholic barley based beverage. Hogwash. Unless you can discover some other common 1830′s era non-alcoholic barley based beverage, mild drinks made from barley means beer. Remember that the instructions in section 89 were meant to be understood by folks living in the 1830′s who had never lived by any type of dietary restriction. If you asked a group of such folks what’s a mild drink made from barley, they would unanimously say it’s beer.

  6. Posted April 22, 2013 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    That is certainly one way to interpret it, if you want to ignore the counsel and word of living prophets and apostles.

  7. Posted April 22, 2013 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    Here are the concentrations found in coffee and tea, which are, on average, significantly higher than most foods.

    • Instant coffee A (powder) 35.51 mg/kg
    • Instant coffee A (2g per 180mL) 0.26 mg/kg
    • Instant coffee B (powder) 31.20 mg/kg
    • Coffee, roasted A (powder) 40.14 mg/kg
    • Coffee, roasted A (powder) 1.15 mg/kg
    • Coffee, roasted B (powder) 36.26 mg/kg
    • Earl Grey tea (leaves) 9.84 mg/kg
    • Green tea (leaves) 1.35 mg/kg

    The IARC classifies coffee as a Group 2B “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”

  8. DB
    Posted April 22, 2013 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    That’s not just an interpretation, that’s exactly what section 89 says. Have any of the apostles ever taught that mild drinks made from barley are not beer? I don’t believe they have. You have to understand that section 89 and the church’s prohibition policy are not the same thing. The Lord revealed section 89, which was not given as a commandment or requirement, to Joseph Smith in 1833. The church established a policy, in the early 1900′s, prohibiting the consumption of alcohol. Before then, wine was still used for the sacrament and members did consume alcohol in varying degrees. Now, that is forbidden by the church’s policy, not by section 89. Although cough syrup and vanilla extract are still allowed. The prohibition policy is based on section 89 but it didn’t change or reinterpret anything about section 89. They are not the same thing. However, because of the prohibition policy, members tend to apply a very strict interpretion to the verses of section 89 concerning alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea while allowing a very loose and open interpretation of the other verses.

    If you have another way to interpret section 89, please explain. Do you believe that section 89 forbids the use of wine for the sacrament? Do you believe that mild drinks made from barley mean something other than beer? If so, what non-alcoholic barley based beverages were people making back in the 1830′s?

  9. Posted April 22, 2013 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    What may have been the case in 1833 is not necessarily the case today, it’s true. Living prophets and apostles today have interpreted the Word of Wisdom to mean abstaining from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea. This is not a mere “policy,” but it is the word of God through his living oracles, a commandment, given by revelation the same way section 89 was given to Joseph Smith in 1833. I did not attempt an in-depth interpretation of section 89 in the context of what it may have meant in 1833, but it is the foundation of what is known as the Word of Wisdom today. Do you believe that living prophets, seers, and revelators have given us a commandment from the Lord today to abstain from the consumption of alcoholic beverages, tobacco, coffee, and tea?

    If mild drinks made of barley included beer in 1833, and were not proscribed, then it has changed today. Beer is an alcoholic beverage which is now proscribed by the Word of Wisdom. If beer was not proscribed in 1833, it may have been because it was a method of purifying water of harmful microbes before modern technologies allowed for proper plumbing and sanitation. This may have also been a reason for making tea. In his 2007 book, Survival of the Sickest, Dr. Sharon Moalem notes:

    “As humans began to settle in cities and towns, they got their first taste of the sanitation and waste management problems that still plague cities today—but without even the possibility of modern plumbing. This made clean water a real challenge, and some theories suggest that different civilizations came up with different solutions. In Europe, they used fermentation—and the resulting alcohol killed microbes, even when, as was often the case, it was mixed with water. On the other side of the world, people purified their water by boiling it and making tea.”

    As water purifying and sanitation systems improved in the early 1900′s, the Lord may have revealed it was time to proscribe alcoholic beverages and tea entirely, as “strong” and “hot” drinks. Regardless of the reason, it is proscribed today by the Lord’s commandment, and one cannot enter the House of the Lord if they don’t abide this word.

    Here’s a selection of quotes from the Church on what the Word of Wisdom means to us today:

    “In the Word of Wisdom, the Lord revealed that the following substances are harmful:
    Alcoholic drinks (see D&C 89:5–7).
    Tobacco (see D&C 89:8).
    Tea and coffee (see D&C 89:9; latter-day prophets have taught that the term “hot drinks,” as written in this verse, refers to tea and coffee).” (, see also “Word of Wisdom,” True to the Faith, (2004),186–88.)

    “Among the things the Lord commands us not to take into our bodies are alcohol and tobacco, which are drugs (see D&C 89:5–8)… The Lord also counsels us against the use of ‘hot drinks’ (D&C 89:9). Prophets have explained that this means coffee and tea, which contain harmful substances. We should avoid all drinks, whether hot or cold, that contain harmful substances.” (“The Lord Has Given Us a Law of Health,” Liahona, Feb. 2012)

    “The Lord commands us not to use wine and strong drinks, meaning drinks containing alcohol… The Lord has also told us that ‘tobacco is not for the body’ (D&C 89:8). It is harmful to our bodies and our spirits. We should not smoke cigarettes or cigars or use chewing tobacco. Scientists have shown that tobacco causes many diseases and can harm unborn children. The Lord also counsels us against the use of ‘hot drinks’ (D&C 89:9). Church leaders have said that this means coffee and tea, which contain harmful substances. We should avoid all drinks that contain harmful substances.” (Gospel Principles,

    President James E. Faust-
    “When I was young, the health benefits of the Word of Wisdom, including abstinence from tobacco, alcoholic drinks, tea, and coffee, were not as well established as they are today. However, the spiritual benefits have long been validated. The Word of Wisdom promises that those who remember to keep this counsel and walk in obedience to the commandments ‘shall receive health in their navel and marrow to their bones.’” (“He Healeth the Broken in Heart,” Liahona, July 2005.)

  10. DB
    Posted April 22, 2013 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    The church does have a policy against the consumption of alcohol but that was not received by revelation as a commandment. Section 89 was not given as a commandment – that is clearly stated in verse 2. If a revelation was received which made section 89, or any part of section 89, a commandment, were is that revelation recorded, which president of the church received it, and when was it received? Can you answer that? There was no revelation – instead, there is a policy based on a portion of section 89 that was developed over many years by the Apostles of the church. That doesn’t make it any less relevant but let’s recognize it for what it is.

    Also, mild drinks made of barley did not include beer in 1833. Mild drinks made of barley were beer in 1833. “Strong drink” in section 89 refers to distilled alcohol. “Pure wine of the grape of the vine” refers to purely fermented wine, not fortified wine.

  11. Ian
    Posted April 22, 2013 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Bryce, you are looking at the science side of things which is cool. Here is a link to to Fairmormon. I think this help with some of the comments.

  12. Posted April 22, 2013 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Not all revelations to God’s prophets are recorded in detail and published to the world. I suspect there are many revelations that are given to the Lord’s servants so that they may direct the affairs of the Church in the manner God intends, but are not necessarily made scripture. Some of these certainly come through the words of prophets and apostles in General Conference. What is clear is that the prohibition of alcoholic beverages, tobacco, tea, and coffee is a commandment, given by the Lord through his prophet, to us today, and obedience to it is a requirement to enter into the temple of God. The quotes I included above should make that clear.

    Here is a great resource for questions about the Word of Wisdom:

  13. JR
    Posted April 22, 2013 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

    Pres. Heber Grant is the one who cracked down on the Saints to start following the Word of Wisdom and made it a requirement to follow it or no Temple recommend among other things. Those Saints who did not follow the W of W before Pres. Grant were tolerated and told to drink, chew, and smoke discretely.

    My parents were converts and did not smoke or drink prior to converting to the church. My mother comes from a line of alcoholics and mental illness and she was afraid to start drinking because she did not want to end up like other members of her family. I have witnessed first hand what alcoholism and drug addiction does. Last year my mother’s last surviving sibling passed away suddenly. After the funeral everyone was drinking (a lot). I was asked repeatedly if I wanted an alcoholic drink. I politely said no but I would take a soda. My step-cousin asked me if the reason I wasn’t drinking was because I was Mormon. I said yes, and then told everyone that my mother, their Aunt and sister-in-law, did not drink before she converted to the Mormon church because of the family alcoholism problem, and even if she had not converted I probably would not drink either. And I told them my father did not drink before converting. They did not know that about my parents.
    Following the counsel of the Word of Wisdom does bless us spiritually and physically. Following the counsel of our leaders blesses us. Because it comes from heavenly Father and His Son, and They tell us to follow Them and keep Their commandments. Addiction has cost civilization greatly in many, many ways. Even food addiction and eating wrong things is harmful and unhealthy. It amazes me how many members do not follow the counsel of the nutritional aspect (food) of the W of W. Eating well is just as important as not drinking coffee/tea/alcohol and not smoking.
    The problem with “science” concerning foods/drinks/substances etc. is that one year it is bad for us and the next year it is good for us. Then the next year no one is really sure if it is good or bad. Then it has these benefits, then it doesn’t, then it might have benefits. And round and round it goes. On almost everything.
    Great information! There is always something new to learn. It is important to keep learning.

  14. Brad Haymond
    Posted April 23, 2013 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    DB, I don’t understand what your point here is. Whether or not beer was specifically interpreted by the leaders of the church in 1833 as included in the prohibitions of the Word of Wisdom doesn’t really matter. Modern-day prophets and apostles since then HAVE. The current prophets and apostles have.

    I think Bryce’s point of the article is that the Lord knows what he is talking about when he gives words of wisdom, and that all the elements mentioned as not good for the body specifically in section 89, and the subsequent interpretations by prophets and apostles – are not good for the body.

    I think it is pretty interesting that Bryce found a specific substance linking all of them in a deleterious way. I had never seen this analyzation before.

    Are you trying to be helpful by a pedantic fixation on semantics?

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