Can a drink truly be said to be non-alcoholic if it has even a tiny percentage of alcohol? Is it safe to drink? Why do they have alcohol in them anyway?
Drinks may be labelled as being less than 0.5% alcohol because they have used alcohol as a solvent in the preparation, or because the drink has been de-alcoholised to create the version, and traces may remain or because it uses ingredients that naturally contain alcohol. To explain this last point: alcohol is a result of ethanol fermentation which occurs in quite a few foods including yeast, vinegar, soy sauce and bananas. Orange juice, for example, contains around 0.7% alcohol.
A 0.5% labelling does not mean the drinker needs to fear ending up drunk or over the limit. A drink with 0.5% alcohol has approximately one tenth of the alcohol of a bottle of ordinary beer, about half a teaspoon. The body will process that amount in around 16 minutes. One simply couldn’t drink fast enough to accrue sufficient alcohol in the blood to feel the effects. And that’s not theoretical: in 2012 a team of researchers in Germany tested the effects of quickly drinking large amounts of 0.5% beer (over 2.5 pints in an hour) on a group of 67 people, who had previously abstained from alcohol for five days. The effects of alcohol in the blood can start to be felt at around 0.04% blood alcohol content (BAC); the BAC levels of the test group never rose above 0.0056%, over seven times lower than the point at which most people start to feel mild effects. So though in theory you could drink ten bottles of 0.5% beer and it would be the equivalent of a 5% bottle of beer, in reality it doesn’t work that way. Drivers, pregnant women and people abstaining from alcohol can safely drink a 0.5% beer, and be at no more risk than when they have a burger bun (which contains 1.2% alcohol).
There’s one caveat, however: recovering alcoholics are not recommended to drink 0.5% drinks. Drinks containing residual traces of alcohol may trigger a condition known as euphoric recall which can jeopardise recovery. Moreover, the fact that non-alcoholic drinks mimic the bottles, labels, and taste of alcoholic drinks can create urges for ‘the real thing.’ Addicts are better sticking to soft drinks or water.