The different options

“Alcohol-free”. “De-alcoholised”. “Less than 0.5%”. “Halal certified.” What’s the difference between all of these options?

How de we define “alcohol-free” given that in absolute terms, zero is basically impossible….

A brief primer

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Before we delve into the processes used to make some of these drinks, let’s look at alcohol itself.

We’re most used to talking about alcohol as a product of deliberate fermentation – where we take a high sugar substance (e.g. malt for beer, grape juice for wine) and add yeast to ferment and yield the alcohol.

And this is true enough – as far as it goes. In terms of what is sold in the liquor store (along with distillates from these fermented drinks) that definition works.

However alcohol (and I’m particularly talking about ethanol, rather than the chemical family of alcohols) is a natural by-product of the actions of yeast and bacteria on sugars, and this doesn’t have to be the intended outcome. For instance, fruit juices (particularly non-pasteurised) will often have small amounts of alcohol present, as some of the sugars will have been broken down. Similarly, homemade “non-alcoholic” fermented ginger beers or kombucha will also have small amounts of alcohol, as some of the sugars will be broken down to alcohol instead of carbon dioxide (which gives the fizziness.) In fact, if you’re not careful – you can brew a ginger beer strong enough to put you over the driving limit.

So how do we draw a line between “alcohol-free” and “low alcohol”?

Variable answers

The answer to this will vary. Some if it comes down to why it’s important to you. Are you concerned because of religious convictions, or because you’re driving tonight? Or is it another reason.

Let’s break down the reasons a little.

Legal

The first reason we can look at is to determine who needs to have a liquor licence to sell the product. If a fruit juice has detectable levels of alcohol (typically <0.5% abv), do we need to bother about licensing laws for that? It would undoubtedly be a silly situation if we did.

Depending where you live, the law will be different. New Zealand’s legislation states that the limit is <1.15% alcohol by volume. That is, if in 100mLs of the drink you have, less than 1.15mL is ethanol, the drink can be sold without needing a licence, and isn’t subject to liquor licensing laws.

It should be noted that many stores treat legally “non-alcoholic” beverages such as the ones reviewed here as if they are covered by licensing laws – taking a deliberately cautious approach. Supermarkets and outlets like Gilmours and Moore Wilsons have all required duty manager approval when I have bought these drinks.

As a general rule, the New Zealand <1.15% limit is the cutoff used on this site for “non-alcoholic” beverages.

The other legal consideration is what level can you safely drink without exceeding the drink driving limit. A lot will depend on your body size, type and activities – there’s no simple rule. People in that situation may pick low-alcohol drinks (like the <2.5% beers) – which can push some people over the limit as well. Don’t forget that 2 beers with 2.5% alcohol is delivering as much as 1 beer at 5%. I’m not going to advise on keeping blood alcohol low, except to say that lower is always going to be better, and zero is safest.

Religious reasons and conscience

Image from pxhere

Religious definitions vary. I can’t comment on all the variations there are – and for some people it’s purely a matter of conscience.

We can’t absolutely avoid any trace alcohol in a drink, but some people will be unhappy with an “alcohol-removed” product with traces left, as the alcohol was still deliberately fermented in at some point. For others, provided the content is low enough to make intoxication/negative impacts near impossible then they will consider it acceptable.

I have noted that some drinks are marked Halal certified, and the only ones I have seen like that have never been fermented, but are the carbonated malt beverages or grape juices.

Another point, if you’re boycotting the industry due to concerns about the impact it’s having, then any dealcoholised options may also be in your firing line as they are generally part of the same industry and from the same sources. On the other hand, you may see the commercial pressure of creating demand for alternatives as outweighing that, in which case encouraging the big players to produce and promote alternatives would make sense.

Health reasons (including addiction)

Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

While our body is able to manage the levels of alcohol naturally encountered in foods and drinks, it is well established that excessive levels cause significant damage – to the liver, the nervous system, kidneys, cardiovascular risk as well as exacerbating some mental health conditions. We also know it’s good to avoid alcohol during pregnancy, and if you’re wanting to lose weight.

So if you’re looking to reduce the alcohol intake for some of those reasons, what limit works for you? I believe in many cases this is a personal decision, but should be informed by the facts. Some people (due to psychological addiction) may choose to avoid alcohol substitutes as well – as these can be a reminder of the urge to drink alcohol. For others, these sorts of drinks may be an adequate replacement without the harmful effects of excess. If you’re looking to lose weight, a dealcoholised wine will generally have fewer calories than a grape juice, as the sugar has been fermented and then the alcohol removed. This isn’t always true – some drinks have sugar added – check the label.

If you’re concerned about the negative effects of alcohol, as a general rule, I’d say that drinks with similar levels to those found in nature (around that magic 0.5% level) are physically going to be tolerated as well as any other drinks, however it’s important to talk it through with your doctor, particularly if you’re concerned.

Concluding thoughts

It’s impossible to have absolutely no alcohol ever hit your system – even if you avoided it as much as possible, the bacteria in your own digestive system will naturally leak a little into your diet. The question isn’t absolute, but what is an acceptable level?

In practical terms, you may look to the levels that are encountered in a normal diet (not supplemented with alcoholic beverages, that is!) From the fruits we eat, or fruit drinks we have. This is around where the <0.5% cutoff tends to come from – a background level that our body will naturally manage without ill-consequence.

However, there are other limits people may have – ethics/religion (including the process used to get the drink), health benefits, or simply wanting to safely drive. The limit in those situations will vary – indeed there are people who will happily drink a homemade kombucha with 2-4% alcohol, and yet avoid buying any beverage that looks remotely like an alcohol.

So you really need to think about why you are doing this, because that will inform your answer, and also let you know the further information you need, because not all alternatives are made equal.

Next week we’ll look more closely at the techniques used to create these non-alcoholic/alcohol-free alternatives.

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