Non-alcoholic, alcohol-free, low alcohol. What’s the difference?

Non-alcoholic, alcohol-free, low alcohol. What’s the difference?

There are multiple terms used to describe products in the low alcohol and no alcohol market (referred to simply as ‘lo/no’ in the trade) but what do they mean and what is the difference.... 

Well, let’s start at the bottom and work our way up. 

First are the products referred to as non-alcoholic. These have next to no alcohol in them whatsoever. Different countries have different rules but generally they could be up to 1ml alcohol in 2 litres of liquid (or 0.05%). 

Next come alcohol-free products. ‘But isn’t that the same?’ you’re probably thinking. Yes, it is if you are referring to a UK product. But in other countries the term 'alcohol-free' can have a different maximum alcohol content. Some countries in Europe allow up to 0.5% in an alcohol-free beverage as does the USA. Elsewhere the limit may be even higher (e.g. Italy). 

Alcohol content of 0.5% is still a very small amount of alcohol. To put it another way, for every 200ml of drink, there is only 1ml of alcohol. So in an average bottle of 330ml alcohol free beer, there could be as much as 1.65ml of pure alcohol, with 3 bottles containing up to a teaspoon of alcohol. That would still only equate to half a 'unit' (a unit being 10ml). 

Compare that to a single 35ml measure of vodka (which at 40%) would contain 14ml of alcohol (the same as over 8 bottles of alcohol free beer). Remember 0.5% is a maximum, there can be less. 

In the UK our alcohol-free drinks must have 0.05% alcohol or less (notice that extra zero after the decimal place) and so the limit is the same as the non-alcoholic category but because of our (current) respect of the laws of other European countries they can sell their products with 0.5% in the UK and still label them as 'alcohol-free'. 

It does nothing to aid consumer understanding and the last Government consultation failed to improve the situation. In the UK the terminology that should be used for drinks with up to 0.5% alcohol is 'de-alcoholised'. I don't like this term as it implies removing the alcohol and not all drinks in this category are produced in that way. Some are simply brewed to finish at a lower level of alcohol using un-fermentable sugars and inefficient or 'lazy' yeasts. There is an increasing number of UK brewers producing beers in this category and to enable them compete with their European and global competitors they have generally adopted the term 'alcohol-free' when describing their products. For this reason, and to help avoid any confusion, we quote the alcohol content of all our drinks straight after the name. That way you know exactly what you're buying. 

Low alcohol comes next and the vast majority of drinks in this category are beers and ciders and all their variations. Low alcohol drinks are those containing up to 1.2% alcohol. If a brewer wants to make a low alcohol beer below this 1.2% threshold, it can easily be done by designing the recipe and adapting the method to take into account the lower target level of alcohol. 

Last comes reduced alcohol and whilst all the previous categories could also come under this category, this is primarily used for higher strength beverages which have had some alcohol removed but more that 1.2% remains. Some wines typically come in this category where alcohol may be partially removed. Beers and ciders which are considered 'reduced alcohol' generally fall into one of the previous categories although there is a growing trend for beers to be brewed at between 1.2% and 2.8% which could fall into this category. 

All measurements of alcohol in this article and on our website refer to alcohol by volume or 'ABV' - explaining the different ways of measuring alcohol is beyond this post but maybe we'll cover it another time. 

If you have any questions or comments, get back to me and if you have a request for a future subject to be covered, drop me a line using the contact form. 


Booze Free Team