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One in four UK adults who drink alcohol regularly, report having had a low-alcohol or alcohol-free product during 2021.
Choosing a low-alcohol or alcohol-free drink instead of a normal beer, wine or spirit can be an effective way to cut your overall alcohol consumption, and there are now more alcohol-free or low-alcohol products to choose from than ever before. As people are becoming increasingly aware of the health risks associated with alcohol use, some people are looking for alternatives in order to live a healthier lifestyle.
Alcohol Change UK report that 24% of adults in England and Scotland regularly drink more alcohol than the Chief Medical Officers low risk guidelines. The idea of counting alcohol units was first introduced in the UK in 1987 to help people keep track of their drinking. Units are a simple way of expressing the quantity of pure alcohol in a drink. It is advised that men and women should drink no more than 14 units a week, on a regular basis.
In the UK, data shows that in 2020 there were 8,974 alcohol-specific deaths. This was an 18.6% increase in deaths from 2019.
In England, there are an estimated 602,391 dependent drinkers, and 82% of these are not accessing any treatment.
Alcohol is the most commonly used drug or addictive substance in society. As alcohol is a legal drug, it is widely accepted as being a social norm.
Alcohol misuse is the biggest risk factor for death, ill health and disability among 15- to 49-year-olds in the UK. There are 200 diseases and injury conditions where alcohol is a factor.
Alcohol is a psychoactive substance which has dependence producing properties. It is regularly used in many cultures across the world and has been used for centuries in social, religious and cultural settings.
It is believed that alcohol can be used responsibly by adults in social settings and therefore it remains a legal substance. However, alcohol can also be used to excess resulting in health, social and legal problems. More and more people are recognising the risks that alcohol poses and are opting for alternatives.
For further reading about alcohol, please see our knowledge base.
What are alcohol-free/low-alcohol drinks?
Low-alcohol or alcohol-free drinks are substitutes for normal alcoholic drinks like beer, cider, wine or spirits. They are marketed and advertised as a replacement for standard alcoholic drinks and aim to recreate their taste, look and feel but without the alcohol content.
In the UK, alcohol-free refers to a drink that contains no more than 0.05% ABV (alcohol by volume); de-alcoholised drinks should contain no more than 0.5% ABV and low-alcohol drinks should contain no more than 1.2% ABV.
In response to the increased demand for low- and alcohol-free options, it is now possible to get a version of pretty much every type of alcoholic drink, including beer, wine, and even spirits like gin and vodka.
Regular and alcohol-free beer essentially go through the same brewing processes. The difference is that alcohol-free beers go through one last step which removes some or most of the alcohol that is present.
There are many alcohol-free wines on the market, which go through the same process as normal wine. Fermentation is a transformative process. It doesn’t just produce the alcohol but also the aromas, flavours and textures. The real challenge of making low- and alcohol-free wine is how to remove the alcohol from a fermented juice, which is usually 13%-14% alcohol by volume, without impairing the taste and quality of the wine.
There are three main methods of doing this:
- Vacuum distillation – Alcohol is removed at a relatively low temperature (25°C-30°C), with aromatics blended back in afterwards.
- Spinning cone columns – This involves repeated low temperature evaporation and condensation using inverted cones and centrifugal forces.
- Reverse osmosis – A sophisticated cross-flow filtration system that separates out different elements based on different molecular sizes before blending them back in.
Legally, there is no such thing as ‘low or no alcohol wine’. Wine is required to have a minimum alcohol level of 8%, otherwise it must be called a ‘wine-based drink’ or something similar.
The process of making alcohol-free/low-alcohol spirits is done in one of two ways:
- Infusions – This is the type of low-alcohol/alcohol-free spirit for you if you want a direct substitute for an alcoholic version of a spirit. Water is infused over a long period of time with the aroma of natural botanicals, flavourings and essences in order to replicate the flavour profiles in alcoholic spirits into an alcohol-free version.
- Distillations – This method uses traditional copper stills to distil a variety of native botanicals and fruit into water rather than alcohol, but none of these are a direct match for gin and they have their own unique flavour.
Differences between low-alcohol and alcohol-free drinks
When you are looking for a low alcohol or alcohol free drink, there are 3 different categories, which include:
- Alcohol-free – In the UK, alcohol free is used to describe a drink or product not containing alcohol, or where the alcohol has been extracted. It must contain no more than 0.05% ABV.
- De-alcoholised – De-alcoholised is a drink where the alcohol has been extracted and it should contain no more than 0.05% ABV.
- Low alcohol – Low alcohol refers to drinks with an ABV of between 0.05% and 1.2%.
Alcohol free, de-alcoholised and low alcohol drinks may still contain a very small amount of alcohol, therefore some of these drinks may not be suitable for someone wanting to avoid alcohol altogether.
Non-alcoholic drinks are those which do not contain any alcohol at all, for example juices such as orange juice, blackcurrant juice, coca cola and lemonade. These types of non-alcoholic drinks may be more suitable for someone recovering from alcohol addiction, as advice would be to avoid any alcohol and the drinks containing small traces of alcohol may be triggering for someone in recovery.
There are some differences between alcohol free and low alcohol drinks, mainly the ABV percentage. It is important to check the label before consuming if you are concerned about alcohol levels. In Europe and in the USA, ‘alcohol-free’ means anything under 0.5%, therefore if you are travelling abroad it is important to be aware that the regulations for low alcohol and alcohol free drinks are different to the UK.
The label on a drink is required to accurately show the alcohol by volume. Labelling requirements may vary outside of the UK.
The key labelling requirements to remember when looking at the labels for alcohol free and low alcohol products are:
- ‘Low alcohol’ or words with a similar meaning should not have more than 1.2% ABV.
- ‘De-alcoholised’ should not have more than 0.5% ABV and should have undergone a dealcoholisation process.
- ‘Non-alcoholic’ is permitted in the composite name ‘non-alcoholic wine’.
- Any drink that contains more than 1.2% ABV must clearly show the actual strength by percentage.
- ‘Alcohol free’ should not be more than 0.05% ABV.
What are the reasons to drink alcohol-free/low-alcohol drinks?
There are many reasons that people are choosing to drink low-alcohol or alcohol-free drinks.
These can include:
- Health reasons – Long-term alcohol use is linked to many health conditions, including cancer, mental health difficulties, high blood pressure and heart disease. For further reading about cancer, please see our knowledge base.
- Diet and weight loss – Alcohol-free and low-alcohol drinks usually have fewer calories than alcoholic drinks.
- Better sleep – Drinking alcohol can affect sleep quality and therefore people may choose alcohol-free or low-alcohol drinks in order to get a better night’s sleep.
- In order to be socially accepted – People may choose alcohol-free or low-alcohol drinks when they are in a social situation where many people are consuming alcohol as a way to fit in. Low-alcohol/alcohol-free drinks often have the same appearance as alcoholic drinks, for example a bottle of beer and a bottle of alcohol-free beer would appear the same without looking closely at the labelling on the bottle.
- A temporary break from alcohol – Low-alcohol or alcohol-free drinks are a good alternative for someone wanting to take a temporary break from alcohol.
- Variety and taste – With so many choices on the low-alcohol/alcohol-free market, consumers are enjoying the flavours and options available.
- Drinking alcohol-free/low-alcohol products is considered to be safer as alcohol increases the risks of injury and accidents occurring.
- Religious reasons – Some people do not consume alcohol for religious reasons and some products are completely alcohol-free.
- Vegetarian and vegan friendly – Vegetarians and vegans have plenty of vegan non-alcoholic drink options to choose from. Animal ingredients are sometimes used in alcoholic drinks, either directly or in the processing and filtration. Alcohol-free drinks are vegetarian and vegan more often.
- You can drink alcohol-free drinks and still drive which can be more convenient and cheaper.
- People having an increased awareness and understanding of the negative effects of alcohol and increasingly more responsible attitudes towards drinking.
- Pregnancy – It is recommended that pregnant women avoid drinking alcohol as it can affect the pregnancy and cause harm to the developing baby.
- Being on medication that requires you to avoid alcohol.
Alcohol is a drug. It is classed as a central nervous system depressant. Consuming alcohol slows down brain functioning and neural activity and reduces the functioning of various other functions within the body.
After you drink alcohol, it is absorbed into the blood where it then travels to the brain. When someone drinks small quantities of alcohol, it can typically make them feel relaxed, animated and disinhibited. It can also impair coordination which is why it is considered unsafe to drink and drive or operate machinery.
When someone consumes large quantities of alcohol, it results in depressant effects in the body. This is because the body is not equipped to process large amounts of alcohol.
At higher concentrations, the effects of alcohol become more severe. People may become more prone to losing control of their emotions and potentially becoming aggressive. Alcohol can often be a factor in violent crimes or anti-social behaviour for this reason.
It is not possible for non-alcoholic beer to make you intoxicated. This is because of how low the alcohol by volume percentage is, and the rate at which your body can process the alcohol.
Your body processes it almost as quickly as you drink it so your blood alcohol level cannot get to a point where you feel intoxicated. It is also important to remember that, even though non-alcoholic beer will not get you drunk, your liver still has to process the small amounts of alcohol that the drinks contain.
What are the benefits of drinking alcohol-free/low-alcohol drinks?
There are many benefits to drinking low-alcohol/alcohol-free drinks.
- It is an overall healthier alternative to drinking alcoholic beverages.
- Consuming less units of alcohol.
- Lower calories which is linked to better health outcomes.
- Lower sugar content than alcoholic drinks.
- Healthier weight.
- Reduces risk of diabetes type 2.
- Improved mental health.
- Improved sleep.
- Improved brain function.
- Improved memory and mental focus.
- A healthier immune system.
- A healthier heart.
- A healthier liver.
- A healthier digestive system.
- Decreased risk of cancer.
- No hangover.
- It will not make you intoxicated.
What are the negatives of alcohol-free drinks?
If you suffer from alcoholism or your alcohol use in general, then alcohol-free drinks are not recommended. This is because they still do contain small amounts of alcohol. They also often smell and taste like alcoholic drinks and therefore this can be too much of a temptation and concern that it could cause a relapse.
Alcoholism is an addiction to alcohol and is the most serious type of problem drinking; it describes an often uncontrollable and strong desire to consume alcohol. It occurs when a person drinks so much that their body becomes physically dependent on or addicted to alcohol.
If you are concerned about your alcohol use, Alcoholics Anonymous provide free help and support to anyone who needs it.
For further reading about how to detox from alcohol, please see our knowledge base.
It is also important to note that whilst alcohol-free drinks are better for your health than alcoholic drinks, they can still contribute to liver damage. If you already have liver damage, alcohol-free drinks can cause further damage as even the very small amount of alcohol present still has to be processed through the liver.
Alcohol-free drinks can also be a risk to people who are suffering from pancreatitis.