I am interested in mechanisms that can harm a recovered alcoholic.
Question was born from a common saying:

A former alcohol-addicted will never drink a drop of alcohol anymore, without fall again in that abyss

What are the mechanisms behind this behaviour?
Talking about foods, and maybe bring this as a starting point: foods cooked with alcohol(1) e.g. scallops with white wine until reduced or foods with alcohol aroma e.g. rum-flavoured pudding(2), can they have some effects/fallout?

1 Answer 1


I am unaware of any medical study that indicates a drop of alcohol is sufficient to trigger a relapse on its own. Relapse is a complex phenomenon.

The quote you provide sounds like it comes from a "12-step" program or similar that considers alcohol as something that is incredibly powerful over addicts and must be completely avoided. This approach works for some but may not be necessary for everyone, and a proportion of people with an alcohol use disorder are able to eventually modify their behavior to drink moderately.

Cooking with alcoholic beverages does not actually remove all ethanol. That said, the amount consumed is unlikely to be sufficient to be detected if someone is unaware their food contains alcohol. Rather, any impact would be psychological. Someone sober who unknowingly ingests some food containing alcohol has not violated their sobriety in any meaningful way.

The most often described triggers for alcohol relapse (after initial withdrawal) involve situational or emotional triggers. Addictions to alcohol or other substances involve changes in brain circuitry that associate reward with those substances; these are similar to the networks involved in seeking food or other sorts of pleasure but are driven very strongly by drugs of abuse.

Situational triggers can include being in locations or with people that are associated with drinking: being in a bar, for example. Tasting a small quantity of alcohol could be indeed be a trigger for some people, but there is no reason to consider those small amounts to be any stronger as a cue than other situational cues. It is unlikely that any one event will trigger relapse on its own, rather, relapse is thought to involve combinations of factors that ultimately overwhelm coping strategies.

Urges to tempt or test sobriety are often associated with relapse, so if someone is tempted to 'cheat' their sobriety through seeking foods that contain alcohol or alcohol-related flavors they may be closer to relapse than someone who simply would prefer not to monitor whether food could contain some small non-intoxicating amount of ethanol.

Daley, D. C. (1987). Relapse prevention with substance abusers: Clinical issues and myths. Social Work, 32(2), 138-142.

Grüsser, S. M., Wrase, J., Klein, S., Hermann, D., Smolka, M. N., Ruf, M., ... & Heinz, A. (2004). Cue-induced activation of the striatum and medial prefrontal cortex is associated with subsequent relapse in abstinent alcoholics. Psychopharmacology, 175(3), 296-302.

Larimer, M. E., Palmer, R. S., & Marlatt, G. A. (1999). Relapse prevention an overview of Marlatt's cognitive-behavioral model. Alcohol Research & Health, 23(2), 151-151.

Marlatt, G. A. (1996). Taxonomy of high‐risk situations for alcohol relapse: evolution and development of a cognitive-behavioral model. Addiction, 91(12s1), 37-50.

Witkiewitz, K., Roos, C. R., Pearson, M. R., Hallgren, K. A., Maisto, S. A., Kirouac, M., ... & Tonigan, J. S. (2016). How much is too much? Patterns of drinking during alcohol treatment and associations with post-treatment outcomes across three alcohol clinical trials. Journal of studies on alcohol and drugs, 78(1), 59-69.

  • "I am unaware of any medical study that indicates a drop of alcohol is sufficient to trigger a relapse on its own." take a look at this article with a broken link to (incorrectly typed) this study page leading to... Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 8:55
  • ...Kristina J. Berglund, Ida Svensson, Ulf Berggren, Jan Balldin, Claudia Fahlke. (2016). Is There a Need for Congruent Treatment Goals Between Alcohol-Dependent Patients and Caregivers? Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research 40(4): 874 DOI: 10.1111/acer.13003 Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 8:57
  • @ChrisRogers That says nothing about food-quantities of alcohol, which is what my comment referred to.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 13:07
  • @ChrisRogers And now reading that paper more thoroughly, it is really completely irrelevant to this discussion. The groups in that paper are self-selected, so it seems that people that choose abstinence as a goal are more successful, not that abstinence approaches are more successful, and the relationship between abstinence goals of individuals versus treatment setting was not significant (though there was a trend). I added an additional citation showing that moderate drinking is a successful goal for some recovering from alcohol use disorder.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 15:27
  • 2
    Perhaps worth mentioning is the fact that the body produces its own alcohol. The average person produces about 3g of ethanol per day through fermentation in the GI tract.
    – Carey Gregory
    Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 16:32

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