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. 

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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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Reader question: Why can’t I find any mustard in France?

Limits on purchases are being imposed in some stores due to a global shortage of mustard grains.

Reader question: Why can't I find any mustard in France?

Question: I haven’t been able to buy mustard for weeks, all the local supermarkets seem to have sold out, is there a shortage?

After recent limits on purchases of cooking oil caused by unnecessary panic-buying, now another staple of French cuisine is hard to come by – mustard.

The reason appears to be a ‘perfect storm’ of events in the world’s three largest mustard-producing countries; Canada, Russia and France.

Canada, the world’s largest mustard producer which provides 80 percent of the seeds that France imports, was hit by an “extreme heat dome” in July 2021, that halved the harvest, prompting the country to limit exports, Michel Liardet, president of Européenne de condiments, a company that specialises in the manufacture and packaging of mustard, told Le Point.

READ ALSO French food firms given permission to change recipes for crisps, cookies and ready-meals because of sunflower oil shortage

The world’s second largest producer, Russia, has had embargoes imposed on exports following its invasion of Ukraine.

As a result, grain prices increased fivefold between April 2021 and April 2022, while the price of packaged mustard has risen by nine percent over the same period, according to the market research institute IRI.

The mustard shortage has prompted Liardet to call for an increase in French production “in order to be less dependent on imports”.

However, harvests in France have declined in recent years, in part because of a ban on the spraying of pesticides on seeds.

It has lead to empty shelves in some supermarkets, while others have imposed limits on mustard-buying.