Alcohol free, low alcohol and de-alcoholised – What does it all mean?

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In most of Europe the term “alcohol free” is used for drinks which contain 0.5% abv or below (Corfe, Hyde and Shepherd, 2020). The rules in the UK are stricter however, with alcohol free being considered as 0.05% abv or below.

So why does alcohol free beer have alcohol?

Some years ago, breweries such as Brewdog and Big Drop started labelling their beers “alcohol free” even though they contained 0.5% abv. Many other companies have since followed their lead on this, including some “alcohol free” wine producers.

They can do this because the labelling of no and low alcohol drinks in the UK is governed by voluntary guidance, not legislation. In other words, you can choose whether to follow these guidelines or not.

The guidance from the Department for Health and Social Care stipulates that drinks of between 0.5% and 0.05% abv should be labelled as “De-alcoholised.”

What does “low alcohol” mean?

Drinks of below 1.2% abv down to 0.5% abv are classed as “low alcohol” in the guidance.

Confused yet?

We do not blame you! In fact, many brewers and people within the drinks industry do not understand these rules. As you can see, it is a bit of a free for all. It really does need simplifying by the government.

As an aside, drinks of 0.5% abv and less are not covered by the Licencing Act 2003 and can therefore be sold to those under 18 years of age, though many choose not to do this for moral reasons.

A summary of the UK labelling guidance:

1.2% – 0.5% abv = “low alcohol”

0.5% – 0.05% = “de-alcoholised”

0.05% and below = “alcohol free”

“Drinks shouldn’t be labelled “alcohol free” when they contain alcohol. It’s misleading.”

We can certainly understand this point of view. Logically, it does make sense.

However, the level of alcohol in drinks with 0.5% abv or below cannot get you drunk and is similar to the level of alcohol you are likely to be consuming in certain foods. According to a paper by Gorgus, Hittinger and Schrenk, 2016, the following foods contain trace amounts of alcohol:

  • Bread and bakery products were found to contain up to 1.28g alcohol per 100g
  • Apple juice was found to contain up to 0.66g alcohol per 100g

Corfe, Hyde and Shepherd, 2020, states that the health effects of drinks with 0.5% abv and below on pregnant women has not been well studied to date. If you are pregnant, it is recommended that you consult your GP before consuming such drinks.

Conclusion

The current UK labelling rules are confusing and require much needed clarification.

It is our view that it would be simpler to call everything of 0.5% abv and under “alcohol free” in line with most the rest of Europe. Then this should be made this clear to consumers.

What do you think?

To learn more about alcohol free drinks and to try some delicious ones why not attend one of our tasting events? Please see the events page.

References

Corfe, S., Hyde, R. and Shepherd, J., 2020. Alcohol-free and low-strength drinks – Understanding their role in reducing alcohol related harms. [online] Smf.co.uk. Available at: <https://www.smf.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/NoLo-drinks-and-alcohol-related-harms-Sept-2020.pdf> [Accessed 25 May 2021].

Gorgus, E., Hittinger, M. and Schrenk, D., 2016. Estimates of Ethanol Exposure in Children from Food not Labeled as Alcohol-Containing. [PDF] Available at: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5421578/> [Accessed 25 May 2021].