I think this is a really important topic to tease out as when we are discussing 0.5% ABV or 0.05% ABV drinks, there is little reference point.
The knee-jerk reaction is to say a pregnant woman can not have a single glass of 0.5% wine, but would she eat or drink the equivalent amount of alcohol in something else without giving it a second though? I think so.
Many common foods contain similar levels of alcohol to a non alcoholic beer. Apple and orange juice can both contain more alcohol by volume and a ripe banana contains a similar amount of alcohol. Even breads contain up to 1.28% ABV for burger rolls.
Do non alcoholic drinks contain alcohol?
As my website is primarily about non alcoholic drinks it is worth considering if non alcoholic drinks contain alcohol and if so, how much?
You will see lots of labels under the “non alcoholic” umbrella. This is a summary of them…
|Term on label||Maximum ABV%||Notes|
|Alcohol free||0.05-0.5%||In some countries this means 0.0%, in others, up to 0.5%|
|Dealcoholised||0.5%||Usually applies to wine and has an ABV of up to 0.5%|
|Non alcoholic||0.5%||Umbrella term but can be up to 0.5%|
|No alcohol||0.5%||A pretty vague term but can have up to 0.5%|
|Low alcohol||1.2%||Up to 1.2% allowed by law|
So a “non alcoholic” drink can have anything from 0.0% to 0.5% ABV. This can be important if you not allowed to drink alcohol for religious or medical reasons although 0.5% is still basically nothing.
For the remainder of this article, keep that 0.5% ABV for a non alcoholic drink in your head for comparison of just how low that is.
What causes a food to have alcohol?
Unless someone is going about injecting alcohol into a lot of foods then it must occur naturally. How does alcohol come to be in our foods? The answer is via ethanol fermentation.
Ethanol Fermentation is the conversion of carbohydrates (sugars usually) to ethanol (alcohol) and or other organic acids.
It is carried out by either yeasts or bacteria under anaerobic conditions. Anaerobic just means, in the absence of oxygen.
The classic fermentation we all know is the conversion of sugar to ethanol to produce our alcoholic beers, wines and spirits.
Let’s look a little bit further at the 2 types of fermentation.
This is where yeasts convert sugars into ethanol (alcohol) and carbon dioxide. This can be a natural process as there are lots of wild yeasts out there that live on the surfaces of food.
Bacteria can ferment sugars to produce energy. They produce sour by products such as lactic acid.
Which foods have fermentation and alcohol?
We all know fruits are high in plant sugar, fructose. Unwashed fruits also have have levels of wild yeasts on their skin for natural fermentation.
Most breads are made with added yeast. The by product the baker is after is carbon dioxide. This forms bubbles in the dough which lightens it and makes it rise.
Yogurts take advantage of bacteria to turn the milk into yogurt. These bacteria produce alcohol as well as organic acids (like lactic acid). These acids give yogurt its distinctive sour taste.
The other major category of food we use fermenting bacteria is the pickled vegetables such as kimchi. The sour organic acids that give the flavour also act as a preserving agent.
How much alcohol do these foods contain?
So we have seen that naturally sugary foods like fruits or yogurts can ferment, as well as when we make breads. But how much actual alcohol are in these foods, surely not as much at the 0.5% non alcoholic beer?
Prepare to be surprised…
|Type of food||Highest alcohol content (ABV) in percent %|
|Alcohol free drink||0.05%|
|Non alcoholic drink||0.5%|
|Grape juice (red)||0.86%|
|White wine vinegar||2.64%|
|Sweet milk rolls||1.21%|
Grape, orange and apple juice can all have more alcohol in it than a 0.5% non alcoholic beer! I’m sure no one ever considers the alcohol content of a fruit juice if they are pregnant or on medication.
Even more surprising is the alcohol in different breads. Some rolls have 150% more alcohol than a 0.5% non alcoholic drink.
Even a ripe banana has about the same alcohol as a non alcoholic beer.
So when you consider the alcohol content in non alcoholic drinks, just be mindful of just how little 0.5% ABV is. It is about the same as ripe banana and less than fruit juice.
The history of fermentation
Natural fermentation has been going on for longer than we have been around but we have been using it for a long time.
Evidence of a beer from 13,000 years ago was found in Israel. For most of our history, we have been using the natural fermentation technique, essentially waiting for wild yeasts to do their thing and produce alcohol.
Humans have been using yeast to make bread for 5000 years plus. Right back to the Eygptian times, but it wasn’t until about 150 years ago that Louis Pasteur connected yeast to fermentation.
Risks of non sterile fermentation
Sterilisation is critical to consider during the fermentation of foods.
If you don’t make sure all your equipment and storing vessels or clean of any bugs or germs, it may result in the multiplication of harmful organisms within the fermenting food. There is a possibility of increasing the growth of very nasty bugs like botulism.
Luckily we are very sensitive to off smells and discoloration in our food stuffs. If you eat something rotten or that may make you sick, you body is likely to make you vomit. Although this protection might not be enough with the botulism toxin.
Bad by products of fermentation
Fermented food can contain a chemical called ethyl carbamate (urethane), which is known to be carcinogenic. That means it can cause cancers.
Various studies across Asia, found that if you regularly eat pickled vegetables, it can double your risk of oesophageal squamous cell cancer.
Humans have been using natural and accelerated for as long as we have been eating. Many of these fermented foods have trace amounts of alcohol in them and no one gives them a second thought.
Non alcoholic drinks, with an ABV of 0.5% or less are in the same alcohol content ball park. We should keep in mind just how little alcohol 0.5% ABV really is, it truly is “non alcoholic”