Nonalcoholic 'Beer' and 'Wine;' How Close to the Real Thing

By Miller, Roger W. | FDA Consumer, September 1986 | Go to article overview

Nonalcoholic 'Beer' and 'Wine;' How Close to the Real Thing


Miller, Roger W., FDA Consumer


Nonalcoholic "Beer'-"Wine'

How Close To The Real Thing?

The quote above is from a press kit handed out when a national brewer recently introduced a new brand of nonalcoholic malt beverage (beer). The statement says a lot about Americans' changing attitudes about themselves, and in particular the growing concern about their drinking habits.

The concerns about alcoholic beverage consumption were demonstrated in a 1985 nationwide survey by the Roper Organization in which nearly half the people--45 percent--categorized drinking as a high risk from a health and safety standpoint. That was up from 34 percent in 1978.

The introduction of the new nonalcoholic malt beverage is yet another example of how the marketplace responds when the public changes its mind. Since their rediscovery a few years ago, nonalcoholic malt beverages and wines have become something of a growth industry. It's not that they threaten the market for "real' beers; these impotent versions are finding a niche of their own by satisfying "current lifestyle interests.'

Despite their promotion of moderation, the nonalcoholic products are not without controversy. The controversy concerns the amount of alcohol that may be in the products and whether alcoholics can safely use them as substitutes for alcoholic beverages.

The products have less than one-half percent alcohol (by volume), compared with 4 percent for regular beer, 3 percent for light beer, and 12 percent for most wines. The nonalcoholic drinks may not be entirely free from alcohol, as there is no known process that will extract all the alcohol from an alcoholic drink. However, one producer advertises that it makes the beer "without alcohol in the first place.'

The small traces of alcohol make the labeling of the beverages an issue. Under current regulations, beers (malt beverages) and wines qualify as nonalcoholic if they contain less than 0.5 percent alcohol. But does even that much alcohol threaten an alcoholic who tries to use the drinks as a substitute for real beer and wine?

One-half percent alcohol in a drink is hardly considered sufficient to bring on drunkenness. According to a consultant's report to the Federal Trade Commission, James M. Schaefer, Ph.D., director of the Office of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Programming at the University of Minnesota, estimated that "in order for the average, healthy, 160-pound individual to sense the cognitively registered alcohol induced reactions, 8 to 11 five-ounce "nonalcoholic' wine drinks at .5 percent would need to be consumed within 10-15 minutes.' And he adds: "The social aspects of drinking 8 to 11 nonalcoholic drinks in rapid succession would be considered abnormal behavior in most social circles.'

However, even small amounts of alcohol may induce an alcoholic to return to his or her old habits, some experts fear. Kenneth Warren, Ph.D., director of the Office of Scientific Affairs, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, fears that an alcoholic who turns to nonalcoholic "beer' and "wine' to stay on the wagon "may not have a long-term prognosis of a favorable outcome.' But, he adds, it's too early to tell, as no studies have been done in the area.

Consumer Reports magazine, which tested two imported nonalcoholic malt beverages for alcohol content and found they contained 0.06 and 0.28 percent alcohol, quotes Walter Murphy, former executive director of the National Council on Alcoholism as saying: "We just don't know what level of alcohol could trigger an alcoholic episode. I can't imagine why anyone would want to take the risk.'

The University of Minnesota's Schaefer addressed the "relapse' potential in his report to the FTC, noting that the minute amount of alcohol in these beverages may not be as great a concern as psychological factors involved in drinking substitutes that are so similar to the real thing.

"There is no clear evidence that the "nonalcoholic' drink would be a more likely source for a "slip' than any other drink that tasted and smelled familiar,' Schaefer said, "or any other evoked inner feeling, "just like the good old days. …

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