Low alcohol beers and wines have been widely available for several years. Are they a good substitute for full-strength alcoholic drinks? There are several issues to consider when making this choice.
Have You Ever Had an Alcohol Problem?
This question deserves careful consideration by people who have had a problem with alcohol in the past, or who are currently experiencing problems with alcohol, such as:
- Alcohol dependence or addiction
- Alcohol abuse
- Binge drinking, or difficulty stopping once you have started drinking
- Problems with self control when intoxicated
- Becoming aggressive, anxious or depressed after drinking
- Physical problems as a result of alcohol use (e.g. liver disease)
If you have a problem with alcohol, you may be better off avoiding alcoholic drinks of any kind. If you are not considering cutting down on your number of drinks, low alcohol or alcohol-free beverages are a way of reducing your overall alcohol consumption and risk of alcohol-related problems.
If you fit this category, discuss the idea of replacing some or all or your alcoholic drinks with low alcohol or alcohol-free beverages with your doctor, alcohol counselor or AA sponsor. Reflect on whether the low alcohol or alcohol-free beverage is really reducing your alcohol intake or whether it could trigger you to drink more.
Placebo and Expectancy Effects
Placebo effects – in the case of drugs, effects which aren’t actually caused by the drug itself – can also occur when people drink low alcohol and alcohol-free drinks. The effects of being intoxicated, such as lowered inhibitions -- can be experienced without actually having a lot of alcohol in the bloodstream.
Expectancy also effect how a person reacts to low alcohol or alcohol-free beverages. Research into alcohol expectancies shows that alcohol/drug effects and the cycle of addiction is driven by people getting the effects they expect to get. While someone drinking a low alcohol or alcohol-free beverage might not consciously expect to become intoxicated, the taste and appearance of the drink can trigger expectancy effects, causing the person to behave as if they had consumed a greater amount of alcohol.
It's a good idea to reflect on how you are affected by low alcohol and alcohol-free beverages, and to consider whether you experience placebo or expectancy effects. Trusted friends are also a good source of information, particularly if you tell them you want an honest opinion of your appearance and behavior. If you seem to be behaving irresponsibly after drinking low alcohol or alcohol-free beverages, it's probably a better idea to stick to water or soft drinks.
Low Alcohol Versus Alcohol-Free Beverages
A range of low alcohol and alcohol-free beverages are available. Alcohol-free beverages contain no alcohol at all, while low alcohol beverages have had most of the alcohol removed by osmosis (many still contain up to 0.5% alcohol). There are over 38 different types of low alcohol beer available, and research shows that the difference between these and full strength beer cannot be determined by tasting.
Alcohol-free beverages are the better choice for anyone who should avoid alcohol altogether. Low alcohol beverages may be a better choice for people who want to reduce their alcohol intake and prefer the taste and minimal effects of low alcohol beverages.
The issues of taste is quite important -- people drink, at least initially, because they enjoy it. If you dislike the taste of the alcohol-free or low alcohol beverage you choose, you are more likely to relapse to the full strength version. Therefore, less harm may be done by choosing a low alcohol beverage you enjoy than an alcohol-free version you dislike.
Harm Reduction For Drivers
Low alcohol or alcohol-free drinks are ideal for moderate drinkers without health problems who intend to drive; this is much safer than the common approach of taking one or two drinks then stopping, which produces more impairment to the cognitive skills important to driving than if you drink low alcohol or alcohol-free beverages. Unfortunately, the legal level of alcohol in the bloodstream in many jurisdictions (0.08) is higher than the level at which your driving is impaired (0.05).
Because low alcohol and alcohol-free beverages do not dehydrate you to the same extent as full-strength beverages (you feel less thirty after drinking them than you do regular versions), the risk of drinking an excessive amount of low alcohol or alcohol-free beverages is low.
Feel embarrassed drinking soft drinks in social situations, but want to avoid intoxication? Low alcohol or alcohol-free beverages are an ideal solution. Vulnerable drinkers, such as young women attending clubs or parties, can stay sober by replacing alcoholic drinks with low or no alcohol alternatives. Or, consider drinking seltzer water with a lime in a cocktail glass.
Purported Health Benefits
Low alcohol beverages, particularly low alcohol red wine, are a good method for incorporating a small amount of alcohol into your diet if you wish to explore the health effects of alcohol reported in many studies. Research shows that people are particularly bad at judging home-poured drinks, so it is difficult to limit yourself to the small quantities recommended before going over into amounts that are more harmful than not drinking at all.Sources
Harnett, C. "University students can't spot low-alcohol beer in taste test" Times Colonist, December 11, 2007. Accessed April 26, 2009.
Hartney, E. "The Weltanschauung of Untreated Heavy Drinkers: A Reassessment of Control, Dependence, and Change." Doctoral Dissertation, University of Birmingham, UK.
Kerr, W., Greenfield, T., Tujague, J., Brown, S. "A Drink Is A Drink? Variation in the Amount of Alcohol Contained in Beer, Wine and Spirits Drinks in a US Methodological Sample." Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research 29:2015–2021. 3 May 2006. Accessed 19 April 2009.