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From 0.05% to 0.5%: Is it time to change alcohol-free labelling?

Updated: Feb 11

by Denise Hamilton-Mace

After several years of waiting, the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities (OHID) in the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has finally re-opened the consultation into the labelling of low-and-no-alcohol beverages.


At the moment the guidance is as follows:

  • ALCOHOL-FREE

This can be applied to any drink that has a maximum ABV of 0.05%

The bottle/can must display the ABV or clearly state that it contains no alcohol to be able to use the term alcohol-free on the product.


  • DE-ALCOHOLISED

Refers to drinks where the alcohol has been extracted, after going through a standard fermentation process, and the resulting ABV can be no more than 0.5%.

Again, these drinks must clearly state the final ABV on their labels.


  • LOW ALCOHOL

These drinks have a maximum ABV of 1.2%.

There are a few brands out there with 2/3% which is lower than the average 4-5% of most UK lagers and ales, but technically they are not officially “low alcohol beers” even though they have a comparatively low alcohol content.


  • NON-ALCOHOLIC

It is not permitted for brands to use the term ‘non-alcoholic’ if their product has a name that is commonly associated with alcohol. For example, low/no spirits should not call themselves ‘non-alcoholic gin’ or ‘non-alcoholic rum’ as the words gin and rum are so entwined with alcohol. This is why you’ll often see drinks labelled as an ‘alternative’.


If you’re of a religious disposition you may have noticed the only exception to this rule, which is ‘non-alcoholic wine’ which has been derived from unfermented grape juice and is intended exclusively for communion or sacramental use and has to be clearly labelled as such.



NOT THE LAW

The last review was in 2018 in which a consultation of the guidance concluded that 56% of those questioned (including people and businesses from NHS, social care, private and public sectors) felt that legislation was not necessary and therefore the government concluded that the descriptors for low alcohol products would remain as guidance and not legislation.


The report noted that they expect:

- Industry members to adhere to and follow the guidance.

- Regulatory bodies to refer to the guidance when assessing if labelling is misleading.

- And for the courts to refer to the guidance in any proceedings regarding the legal framework of misleading labelling.


As you would have gleaned from the wording above this is indeed merely guidance and not law meaning that the sector is open to abuse and misuse by those who either wish to mislead or simply don’t understand the requirements.


CONSUMER CONFUSION For the consumer, it’s even more confusing. Products from neighbouring Europe and further afield such as the US and Aus who regularly import low/no products to the UK use the term alcohol-free to refer to products which are at or below 0.5%.


So it’s not uncommon, if you’re exploring this whole new world of low-and-no to be holding two different beers in hand with the same ABV (alcohol by volume) but different categorisations.



THE CONSULTATION

The main goal of the consultation therefore is to answer the question “Should alcohol substitute drinks containing 0.5% alcohol by volume be classified as ‘alcohol-free’?” And to glean public input on:

  • DHSC’s recommended conditions of using the descriptors ‘alcohol-free’, ‘de-alcoholised’, ‘non-alcoholic’ and ‘low alcohol’ and whether such conditions should be set in regulations.

  • Displaying numerical information of the alcoholic strength on the label.

  • Displaying the UK chief medical officers’ low-risk drinking guidelines on the label and alternative ways of communicating this information to consumers.

  • Displaying an age restriction on NoLo products and alternative options for preventing children and young people from accessing and consuming NoLo drinks.


PUBLIC OPINION

There are some who argue of course that alcohol-free should be just that - 0% alcohol. But there are others who point out the little-known but omnipresent alcohol levels in many of our daily groceries. Laura Willoughby of Club Soda, for example, often references the alcohol content of a brioche bun which is a surprising 2%!


Most soft drinks, ripe fruit and many other daily products all contain around 0.5% ABV but because they are not related to alcohol in any way this doesn’t get labelled leading to a perhaps unwarranted fear of AF drinks moving from 0.05% to 0.5%


THE 'SCIENCY' BIT

Medically speaking (no I am not a doctor) it is impossible to consume enough alcohol from a 0.5% beer to get even close to being intoxicated, our bodies are extremely efficient at processing ethanol at such low levels (the problems arise when we begin to abuse that efficiency but that’s a convo for another post).


In this oft-cited German study in which 78 people consumed 1.5 litres of 0.4% beer in just one hour their blood alcohol levels never raised above 0.0056%. According to Steady Drinker this is:

  • 14 times lower the drink driving limit of 0.08% in England.

  • 9 times lower than the drink driving limit of 0.05% in Scotland.

  • 7 times lower than the level (0.04%) that most people start to feel the minor effects of alcohol.

A CALL TO CARE

I for one would be delighted to see the naming and labelling of low/no beverages brought together in some sort of uniformity that allows us to manage the industry on a par with our international cousins.


It’s high time that low/no was given the same respect and protection as other industries and standards were put in place that demand adherence rather than vague and confusing guidelines that leave everyone from producers to marketers to consumers confused about what’s in their glass.




 




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