It’s not an unreasonable assumption: if something is going to be labelled as alcohol-free, surely that’s exactly what it should be. Yet in the case of alcohol-free beer, you’re not quite getting what you think.
That’s because alcohol-free beer may contain a very small amount of alcohol – under 0.05% by volume. This is generally less than the amount of alcohol that can be found occurring naturally in fruit juices, for the sake of comparison.
Now, amounts considered acceptable to be described as alcohol-free differ around the world. In Germany, for instance, the beer may contain up to 0.5% alcohol by weight (around 0.625% ABV) to be labelled “alkoholfrei”, and in the United States beers containing less than 0.5% ABV can be legally called non-alcoholic.
Complications arise when you start to look further into labelling, and discover the differences between alcohol-free beer, dealcoholised beer, and low-alcohol beer in the UK. Here’s a quick guide:
0.00% to 0.05% ABV – no alcohol or alcohol-free
0.05% to 0.5% ABV – dealcoholised
Not more than 1.2% ABV – low-alcohol
So: can you actually get drunk on any of them?
No. No you can’t. The amount of water in the beer far outweighs the amount of alcohol, effectively counteracting any effects. Generally speaking, a person would have to drink eight low alcohol beers to even get close to ingesting the same amount of alcohol you could get from a normal beer, by which time you would have drunk eight times the amount of water. And this brings its own set of risks.
Water intoxication can occur when the body’s intake of water exceeds its ability to process it. The kidneys of a healthy person can process 0.8 to one litre of water an hour. Say you’re a bit on the cautious side when it comes to alcoholic drinks, and two beers an hour will do the trick. That will mean drinking 16 non-alcoholic beers at, say, 500ml. That’s a total of 8000ml. Eight litres in one hour will definitely put you at risk of water intoxication, which can lead to a disturbance to your brain functions, possibly ending in death. But at least you won’t be drunk.
One more thing: low alcohol beer still contains the many beneficial vitamins and minerals found in alcoholic beer, including folic acid, B vitamins, potassium, and antioxidants. Recent studies have suggested it can also help to cut cholesterol levels while removing the risks associated with drinking high levels of alcohol, such as liver problems and an increased risk of some cancers.
So although it’s not exactly what it claims to be, alcohol-free beer contains some stuff that’s good for you along with such a small amount of alcohol as to be an acceptable alternative for those who don’t want to feel the effects.