Who are non-alcoholic drinks really for?

Like booze, but better.
Like booze, but better.
Image: Reuters/Caitlin Ochs
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Over the past few years, adult beverage companies have been taking a new approach to bringing in customers. Instead of ramping up the alcohol content of their beverages—a trend consistent with craft beers—they’re decreasing it or removing it entirely.

The market shift reflects a shift in the way people want to drink: intentionally. Instead of going along with the drinking culture infused at work or social events, some like to say “no.” When teetotaling or forgoing alcohol is not tied to a medical or religious condition, it’s considered a wellness choice, akin to meditating or eliminating processed foods from your diet.

Brands are responding to sobriety’s growing popularity. There are now dozens brands selling beverages with no alcohol that are advertised as mocktails crafted with high-end mixology, or beers with the same hoppy taste. And for those who still want to drink but want fewer, less-desirable consequences (like hangovers), researchers are working on a new slew of beverages.

In an age where sobriety equals wellness and wellness equals big money, it’s only natural that beverage companies would start trying to court non-drinkers. But in practice, these newer drinks for the sober-curious may not be serving the actually sober community. Instead, they’re just trying to be a placeholder for a beloved product without most of the downsides.

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A treat or a risk?

Sarah Stuhr, 34, started drinking non-alcoholic beers last year. Shuhr, who is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, has been in recovery from alcohol-use disorder for over three years. At this point, they’re comfortable in their sobriety. “Never do I wake up and say, ‘Oh drinking is a good idea,’” Stuhr says. “But I do miss the flavor of a beer.”

For Stuhr, non-alcoholic beer has been a treat to reintroduce into their life. It has the taste of the IPAs they enjoyed previously, which they still like to wind down with or drink with friends at a bar. But not everyone reaches that comfort level in their sobriety.

Though non-alcoholic beers and crafted mocktails are growing in the recovery community, some circles still believe they may be harmful. There’s a concern that the habit of opening a drink that looks and tastes similar to an alcoholic one may cause a dangerous craving for the real thing. (There’s also a concern about trace amounts of alcohol in some beverages—O’Doul’s beers, for example, are 0.4% alcohol by volume. Although it’s pretty much impossible to get drunk from that concentration, the taste or psychological effect could trigger someone to crave actual alcohol.)

At the same time, beers or bottled mocktails may not actually be the kind of drink sober people want. “I think [non-alcoholic beer] is stupid,” says Timika, 42, who has been sober for seven years. (Tamika works in the cannabis industry and views her choice to stay sober as a private matter.) Timika never experienced a substance use disorder, but didn’t like the way drinking made her feel. To her, the current iterations of non-alcoholic beer don’t even taste good. “I’ll have a lemon water if you’ve got nothing else,” she says.

Timika says she will enjoy a nice mocktail—but only if there’s a mixologist who can actually craft her something that balances out different tastes and flavors like an actual cocktail. She tends to buy drinks that are marketed as “nutritious” instead of merely “non-alcoholic.” “I’m probably more into fancy water and juices and elixirs,” she says.

So for people who abstain completely from alcohol, the new wave of non-alcoholic options are hit or miss. The uptick in interest seems to be primarily coming from people who are temporarily sober for reasons like being pregnant or serving as designated driver for the night, or drinkers who want to take a break for any number of other reasons. Surely frustration with the less-desirable side effects of drinking—hangovers, bloating, or anxiety—must be among them. If there were a way to enjoy the buzz of alcohol without the consequences, would that be preferable?

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The promise of hangover-free drinks

Colin Dahl didn’t mean to invent a hangover-free wine. It was more of a happy accident. “We were asked to do some research into a healthier wine,” says the researcher, who used to be employed at the private research and development company Australian Sciences. In this case, “healthier” meant easier for the body to process.

He and his team developed an antioxidant-rich shiraz (a type of red wine), and noticed when taste testing that even after a few glasses, they felt fine. When they started investigating why, they believed that the added grape antioxidants called polyphenols counteracted the inflammation (read: hangover) that results when the body processes alcohol.

To date, no in-depth scientific research supports Dahl’s hypothesis.  Dahl and his colleagues did perform a double-blinded trial in which 21 participants drank regular wine, and 12 drank his shiraz. The shiraz drinkers felt significantly better the next day, but the findings have yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal. Still, in 2019, Dahl founded a spinoff company, Oppil, which just opened its first bar in Sydney. In addition to a shiraz and a rosé made with the same kind of polyphenols, the bar will make cocktails with liquors infused with polyphenols. (No word on the decreased hangovers of those, either, other than anecdotal accounts. Oppil is conducting an ongoing clinical trial, and interim results are positive.)

Dahl isn’t the only one interested in drinks that reduce hangovers. In the US, More Labs, a Los Angeles-based company, sells “Morning Recovery,” a 3.4-ounce electrolyte mix that a would-be drinker could down before a night out. It originated in South Korea, where it’s sold as a “hangover cure,” but in the US, it’s labeled a supplement. (The US Food and Drug Administration doesn’t allow companies to market that products can “cure” or “prevent” anything unless they’ve undergone rigorous clinical testing.) Anecdotal evidence suggests it works, using a method similar to Dahl’s wine, which supplements the body’s ability to break down alcohol’s toxic byproducts.

In the UK, David Nutt, a neuropsychiatrist at Imperial College in London, has been working on a product called “alcosynth,” which mimics alcohol but doesn’t bind as tightly to the brain. This means that, while you could feel drunk for a short period of time, you wouldn’t stay drunk long enough for it to linger in your system. Alcosynth hasn’t been tested for safety yet, but over the next five years Nutt and his colleagues plan to boost research and development.

While these beverages might help people feel better when they drink, they won’t actually take away any of the dangers of alcohol. “Alcohol is alcohol,” says Gyongyi Szabo, a Harvard scientist who studies alcoholic liver disease. Alcohol is a well-established carcinogenic toxin. “The active component [in booze] and damage to the organ is due to alcohol,” she says.

Though Szabo believes it may be possible to overcome the feelings of a hangover with electrolyte-rich drinks or potentially some of these newer antioxidant remedies, none of it blocks the cellular damage to a drinker’s liver. Although liver cells have the remarkable ability to regenerate, chronic exposure to alcohol can result in cancer or other potentially fatal diseases.

Szabo says that if hangover-free booze encouraged people to drink more, it’d be a bad thing for public health. Dahl denies that’s the purpose of Oppil’s drinks. “We don’t want to be associated with [binge drinkers],” he says. Instead, it’s just supposed to allow the person who wants three or four drinks to be able to have a nice morning. (In the US, doctors consider “moderate” drinking to be no more than one drink for women and two drinks for men in a single sitting; heavy drinking is defined as three drinks for women per day and four drinks for men.)

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The untapped market

The emergence of non-alcoholic, low-alcoholic, or low-hangover beverages isn’t necessarily problematic for public health—it’s probably good to have more options for people who are sober anyway, whether as a temporary or permanent state.

But at the moment, a large chunk of the market is being created by a movement that views sobriety as a wellness choice, not a necessity.

Stuhr wishes that they could see more representation of sobriety in the creation of some of these drinks. Even though they’ve seen more options in their hometown of Minneapolis at local breweries, catering to non-drinkers is often an afterthought for most bars. “I walk the line between not caring about the alcohol world and also wanting to create more space for people who are sober for any reason,” Stuhr says.