Are zero alcohol drinks really zero alcohol?

by | Oct 30, 2019 | VIP Only

The demand for non-alcoholic drinks are on the rise. But it’s important to know that not every drink labelled 0.0% is truly zero alcohol. So why are so many brands misleading the consumer, and what are the implications? By Anton Pretorius.

In September, an article on News24 made the rounds of various beverage brands claiming to have alcohol concentrations of 0.0% when in fact, it contained up to 1.8% alcohol.

If you think non-alcoholic drinks should be interpreted to mean zero alcohol, then let me disabuse you of that particular notion.

According to data published by The National Centre for Biotechnology Information in the US in which 45 non-alcoholic beverages were sampled and analysed, 13 raised red flags. The study findings showed that in some cases, the information presented on the labels weren’t always accurate.

“In particular, certain brands claiming to have alcohol concentrations of 0.0% had levels of up to 1.8%,” warned researchers, who acknowledge that while much more needs to be done by way of larger clinical trials, the potential risks of consuming non-alcoholic beverages far outweigh the unknowns.

Oliver Wills, marketing manager of Bavaria, spoke to us about the interesting discussion around 0.0% non-alcoholic products and if they are truly alcohol-free.

The discussion was a hot topic during August’s International Breastfeeding Week and Foetal Alcohol Syndrome Day in September. South Africa has the highest reported occurrence of FAS in the world. In the West Coast, 64 children per 1 000 are affected (6.42%), making it one of the highest in the world.

However, there is a massive difference in some products that claim to be alcohol-free and are actually 0.5%, versus products like Bavaria non-alcoholic beer (NAB) which are truly 0.0% and actually have health benefits related to their malt ingredient and pure production process.

Bavaria utilises a biological process of production using immobilised yeast cells in a bio-reactor which operates at extremely specific measures. In this way, Bavaria ensures that alcohol formation never takes place.

In comparison, many brands are de-alcoholised products. With this method, an alcoholic beverage is produced in the first instance and the alcohol is then removed by physical means, either thermally (for instance: evaporation or via a membrane). These processes do not completely remove the alcohol out of the product and ‘alcohol-free’ is defined as having an ABV (alcohol by volume) of anything at or below 0.05%.

This is indeed a misleading definition and seems to be causing confusion amongst consumers. We spoke to Oliver about the issue:

Oliver Wills, marketing manager of Bavaria.

Q: How big a problem is Foetal Alcohol Syndrome in South Africa?

OW: Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is a disorder within a spectrum of disorders which are covered by an umbrella term FASD (Foetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder). FAS is the most extreme of the conditions under this disorder. According to the American Medical Association journal JAMA Pediatrics, South Africa has the highest prevalence of FAS than anywhere else in the world. Alarmingly, the syndrome is prevalent in 111 per 1 000 children, which is 14 times higher than the global average of 7.7 per 1 000. Further, this statistic may be even higher in South Africa as FAS is a developmental disability and may only be visible later in a child’s development and can affect the child in a number of ways. The Foundation for Alcohol Related Research (FARR) conducted research in Saldanha Bay Municipality and found a prevalence of FAS in 6.42% (64 per 100) of Grade 1 learners. That is an alarmingly high statistic which cannot be ignored, however, unfortunately, it is. According to FARR, FAS affects up to three million people in South Africa, with more than six million affected by FASD. Alarmingly, there is no noteworthy governmental intervention or initiatives to create more awareness regarding the spectrum of disorders and its causes.

Q: Do you believe that the prevalence of more non-alcoholic products will help curb the FAS problem?

OW: No, I don’t think so. However, I do believe that there is an opportunity for brand owners within the non-alcoholic category to work collaboratively with organisations to help spread awareness of the FASD. If you look at initiatives conducted by FASfacts and FARR, it is shockingly evident that awareness and communication of the effects of alcohol consumption during pregnancy and the resultant prevalence of FAS due to said consumption can reduce the prevalence of FAS quite considerably. I believe that the non-alcoholic category owners have a collective responsibility to help those in need to understand the effects of alcohol on their unborn children, themselves, and their communities. It is not about not drinking alcohol, it is about making positive choices that have a positive outcome. Dare I say it – responsible drinking.

Q: Is Bavaria’s non-alcoholic division merely an addition to the brand’s product line, or is there an increased movement towards mindful drinking?

OW: Bavaria non-alcoholic is an addition to a product line: our premium pilsner which has been brewed by the Swinkels’ Family in Holland since 1719. Our non-alcoholic range was first developed in 1978 out of a need to promote the safe use of alcohol, especially when driving. Over the years it took shape into a complete product assortment with a unique and patented brewing method. The method allowed Bavaria to produce a completely alcohol-free product. Globally there is a definite movement toward mindful drinking and ‘sober curiosity.’ However, I don’t like the term ‘sober curiosity’. I prefer the term ‘sober health’ and that’s what we focus on. Sober curiosity is fleeting. You taste a few products and you are no longer curious, however, what you have done is open the door to your sober health. Sober health is based in mindfulness and wellness, an aspect of that would be responsible drinking. Again, I believe the non-alcoholic category owners have a great opportunity to share in the positive benefits of the category overall and it can definitely promote meaningful initiatives, such as the awareness and communication of FAS.

Q: You mention that some beer/alcohol brands claim to be completely ‘alcohol-free’ when in fact, it’s not. Surely, there must be repercussions against such brands (by regulatory boards) for misleading the consumer?

OW: By definition, a product that claims to be alcohol-free cannot be, as alcohol-free means that the product contains alcohol 0.05% and less to be exact. 0.05% is not alcohol-free as it contains a trace element of alcohol. If you make a claim that you are non-alcoholic, then your claim is one that you have absolutely no alcohol in your product. Unfortunately, there is a global confusion around the definitions within the category, with different regions having varying determinants of what is or what is not alcohol-free or non-alcoholic. We even see discrepancies around definitions of low-alcohol products. Until there is a global standard, I do believe that it is not my place to name and shame brands. However, I will say that certain brands on the market should do a better job of defining their product and making the consumer aware of the ABV (alcohol by volume) of their products. There are a few methods of production within the category and some can lead to ‘overshot’ or trace elements of alcohol in the final product. Whilst this does not detract from the positive qualities of all these brands, it must be understood that we have consumers who cannot have alcohol or consume a product that once had alcohol and now does not, i.e. a de-alcoholised product. For example, Muslims cannot partake in alcohol products as they are Haram, and pregnant mothers who want absolutely no alcohol, not even a trace element, must be afforded the opportunity to make an informed decision not to have alcohol. It is our collective duty as brand owners to help the consumers make informed decisions. Further, yes, I believe there must be repercussions for false or misleading advertising and we will see cases pop up here and there I am sure. What we must all be mindful of is the confusion I spoke about earlier. I believe it will take time for brands and regulatory bodies to come to a consensus on what is permitted and what is not. As consumers and brands, we must take this opportunity to vocalise any objections or concerns and do so from a point of collective understanding of the necessary rules and regulations regarding the promotion and marketing of NAB products.

Q: What sets Bavaria’s non-alcoholic product apart from the rest out there? Perhaps you can explain the biological process in layman’s terms?

OW: Bavaria 0.0% is a non-alcoholic malt beverage which is produced from the outset to ensure that no alcohol formation takes place whatsoever. This is a biological process, where the liquid passes through a bio-reactor containing immobilised yeast cells at very precise variables (time, temperature and flow-rate) and ensures that there is no reduction in flavour or alcohol production. Other methods of production – normally utilised for alcohol-free beers – concern more physical extraction processes. These processes use either a thermal process of extraction, i.e. evaporation, or by passing the liquid through a membrane, i.e. dialysis. Either way, in both cases, an alcoholic liquid is produced in the first instance or the alcohol is then removed. The reason we see trace elements of alcohol is that these products have a slight ‘overshot’ of alcohol. It’s important for brands to show the ABV of their products and the method of production utilised in the making of the product. Whilst all non-alcoholic and alcohol-free products have the same positive benefits to the consumer, we must always be mindful of those who can’t and those who won’t consume alcohol for whatever reasons. It is for them, that the definitions and the methods of brewing are important.

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