|Published Scientific Papers on Thujone
Chemical Composition of Vintage Preban Absinthe with Special Reference to
Thujone, Fenchone, Pinocamphone, Methanol, Copper, and Antimony
by Dirk W. Lachenmeier, David Nathan-Maister, Theodore A. Breaux, Eva-Maria Sohnius,
Kerstin Schoeberl, and Thomas Kuballa
Published in Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, April 2008
Thirteen samples of authentic absinthe dating from the preban era (i.e., prior to 1915) were analyzed for parameters that were
hypothesized as contributing to the toxicity of the spirit, including naturally occurring herbal essences (thujone, pinocamphone,
fenchone), methanol, higher alcohols, copper, and antimony. The total thujone content of preban absinthe was found to range between
0.5 and 48.3 mg/L, with an average concentration of 25.4 20.3 mg/L and a median concentration of 33.3 mg/L. The authors conclude
that the thujone concentration of preban absinthe was generally overestimated in the past. The analysis of postban (1915–1988) and
modern commercial absinthes (2003–2006) showed that the encompassed thujone ranges of all absinthes are quite similar,
disproving the supposition that a fundamental difference exists between preban and modern absinthes manufactured according to
historical recipes. Analyses of pinocamphone, fenchone, base spirits, copper, and antimony were inconspicuous. All things
considered, nothing besides ethanol was found in the absinthes that was able to explain the syndrome “absinthism”.
A (slightly modiified) version of the press release accompanying the article:
Absinthe is an alcoholic aperitif made from alcohol and distilled herbs or herbal extracts, amongst them grand wormwood (Artemisia
absinthium) and green anise, but also usually including 4 other herbs: petite wormwood (Artemisia pontica), fennel, hyssop, and
melissa (lemon balm).
The most popular misconception about absinthe is that it is an illicit drug, or at least similar to a drug in effect. This is not true. The
hysteria surrounding absinthe in the early 20th century fueled the misconception that absinthe was a powerful intoxicant, caused
hallucinations that drove men mad, threw them into epileptic fits, and made van Gogh slice off his ear.
The truth however, is both more interesting and less sensational. The story centers around a substance called thujone, which is a
natural constituent of wormwood, and regarded as its 'active' ingredient. Thujone was said to be hallucinogenic and/or harmful, causing
the distinct syndrome 'absinthism'; this is why there's been a widespread ban on absinthe all these years.
Scientists from the USA, the UK and Germany have now uncovered the truth about thujone in absinthe by, for the very first time,
analyzing the actual thujone content of a representative sampling of original vintage absinthes. Their study has recently appeared in the
American Chemical Society's peer-reviewed Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. The full text can be accessed below in PDF
Perhaps surprisingly, samples of absinthe made in France and Switzerland before the ban survive today. Still-sealed intact original
bottles of the famous elixir emerge from the dust of history from time to time. In an extensive international effort, more than a dozen
samples of authentic vintage pre-ban absinthes were collected, from bottles found in France, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands,
and the USA. Only bottles of unquestioned authenticity were used (e.g. intact wax seals, original corks and labels).
In total, thirteen pre-ban absinthes, including many of the largest and most popular brands, were analyzed for thujone as well as for
further parameters that have been hypothesized as contributing to the toxicity of pre-ban absinthe, including naturally occurring herbal
essences (e.g. pinocamphone, fenchone), methanol, higher alcohols, copper, and antimony.
The results of the analysis show quite conclusively that the thujone concentration of pre-ban absinthe has been grossly over-estimated
in the past. Papers published in the 1980's and 1990's postulated thujone concentrations as high as 260 mg/L, on the basis of purely
theoretical calculations, not actual analysis. It's already well known that modern absinthes made according to historical recipes don't
have anything like these levels of thujone ' now, this new study has shown that the original absinthes of the Belle Époque also had only
very moderate levels of thujone. The total thujone content of the 13 pre-ban samples was found to range between 0.5 and 48.3 mg/L.
Contrary to ill-informed speculation, the average thujone content of 25.4 ± 20.3 mg/L fell within the modern EU limit of 35 mg/L.
All other constituents were also toxicologically inconspicuous. Nothing besides ethanol was found in the absinthes able to explain the
so-called syndrome 'absinthism'. In other words, the entire historical demonization of absinthe is based on a false premise ' that it is a
thujone-rich drink. It isn't.
It is now increasingly clear in fact that well-made absinthes following authentic traditional recipes seldom have thujone levels much in
excess of the EU limit. It seems that irrespective of the quantity of wormwood used, relatively little thujone makes it through the distilling
process into the final distillate. The significance of this finding can't be overstated. Many herbs, including those commonly used in
cooking, contain substances that if consumed in enormous quantities are potentially harmful. But common sense tells us that they are
safe to use, because in practice these substances are only present in miniscule amounts. Likewise with absinthe ' yes it contains
thujone, yes thujone is potentially harmful, but the quantity of thujone actually in a bottle of absinthe is extremely small.
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