What is low-alcohol and alcohol-free beer?
Beer is one of the oldest and most widely consumed of all alcoholic drinks, but almost one in three of us are now reaching for low or no-alcohol versions ‘semi-regularly.’
So what's the difference between a regular pint and low-alcohol or alcohol-free alternatives, aside from the obvious?
As with all alcoholic drinks, the alcohol content of beer is presented as a percentage of the whole drink, or Alcohol by Volume (ABV).
UK law requires beer to meet the following ABV requirements:
- Alcohol ‘free’ – no more than 0.05% ABV*
- De-alcoholised – no more than 0.5% ABV
- Low alcohol – no more than 1.2% ABV
- Alcoholic – contains more than 1.2% ABV
Alcohol ‘free’ beer is made by preventing alcohol from forming during the brewing process. De-alcoholised beer, on the other hand, has the alcohol removed in one of two ways: by boiling off the alcohol or by filtration.
*Note: ‘alcohol-free’ ABV values are different in the UK to that specified by the European Union.
With similar protein, carbohydrate and sugar content to regular beer, the calorie count of low-alcohol products sets them apart. That’s because, although carbs and sugar are similar, the lower alcohol content typically results in fewer calories.
Made from barley malt, hops and yeast, beer is a source of naturally occurring plant compounds called polyphenols, the majority (about 70-80%) of which are derived from malt. Polyphenols are believed to have a number of health benefits, such as supporting circulation, reducing blood pressure and lowering inflammation.
Why choose a low-alcohol beer?
That said, many of us enjoy a tipple or two (perhaps buoyed by the idea that moderate amounts of alcohol may be cardio-protective). However, it’s not just excess or binge drinking that can be detrimental to our health. Even modest alcohol intakes, on a regular basis, may increase the risk of atrial fibrillation (AF) because alcohol use can contribute to obesity, sleep-disordered breathing and high blood pressure. And it's beer and cider consumption in particular which may influence our AF risk.
With this in mind, and following changes in drinking habits during the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a steady and consistent growth in the low-alcohol sector.
Is low-alcohol beer healthy?
There are some obvious benefits to low or ‘alcohol-free’ beer. With fewer alcohol units than their regular counterparts, choosing low-alcohol or ‘alcohol-free’ makes it easier to stay within the recommended drinking guidelines. Furthermore, a low-alcohol beer has less impact on blood alcohol concentration, which makes a low-alcohol pint a better option if you’re the designated driver.
Depending on its source and production methods, both alcoholic and low-alcohol beer is rich in natural plant-derived compounds called polyphenols. These compounds bestow colour and flavour to the drink but also have protective properties that are credited for several health benefits.
For example, polyphenols are important fuel for the bacteria that live in our gut. Polyphenols derived from beer may be particularly useful because only a small amount (5-10%) is absorbed in the small intestine, with the remainder making its way to the colon where gut microbes ferment it and transform polyphenols into their active, beneficial form. This suggests beer may be gut-friendly and helpful for supporting immunity.
Menopausal women in particular may benefit from a moderate intake of the polyphenols found in hops. Studies suggest hop-derived polyphenols may offer this group some relief from symptoms including hot flushes. In this case, consuming polyphenols in alcohol-free form eliminates the negative effects associated with alcohol consumption, while potentially providing some benefits.
Recent advances and innovation in low-alcohol beer have opened our eyes to further potential benefits of these products. German brewer Erdinger is a case in point: their alcohol-free (ABV 0.5%) wheat beer contains electrolytes, and a group of marathon runners in one study reported its positive ‘isotonic’ effect on rehydration. The beer’s polyphenol content was also thought to help reduce post-exercise inflammation and the incidence of respiratory infections. Erdinger's non-alcoholic wheat beer is also a source of micronutrients including folate and vitamin B12, although it has a relatively high sugar content.
A cautionary note…
Although certain aspects of low-alcohol and alcohol-free beers may be better for you than a regular pint, they should still be consumed in moderation. Just like regular beer, they are high in carbs and may lead to weight gain and other health-related issues. If you’re looking to increase your polyphenol intake, there are healthier dietary sources such as fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices.
Is low-alcohol beer as enjoyable as a regular pint?
On the whole, the taste and enjoyment of low-alcohol beer is well accepted. Some drinkers (when drinking blind) stated they were unaware of the beer’s alcohol status. For anyone in the know, this will come as no surprise given the manufacture of these new generation low-alcohol products is modelled on traditional craft beer production. These production methods, which tend to involve less heat, not only improve the flavour of the beer but may retain more of the beer’s natural polyphenol content. In addition to reducing the negatives associated with beer, such as excess alcohol and calories, this supports a low-alcohol pint as a healthier option.
Is low-alcohol beer safe for everyone?
Although low-alcohol and ‘alcohol-free’ beer may be a useful choice for many of us, there are some groups that should avoid them.
There is still some debate as to how much alcohol is safe during pregnancy, so the safest approach is to not drink alcohol at all while you’re expecting. With this in mind, expectant mums should be aware that ‘alcohol-free’ beer may, despite its name, contain small amounts of alcohol.
If you or a loved one are alcohol dependent or in recovery from alcoholism you should not consume low alcohol or ‘alcohol-free’ beer. This is because the small amount of alcohol in these products may trigger cravings and a relapse from recovery.
If you enjoy drinking alcohol, make sure you check out the UK Government guidelines and ensure you know exactly how many units are in the alcoholic drinks you regularly consume.
It's recommended you set aside at least two days in the week, preferably consecutive, to be alcohol free. You should also spread your alcohol consumption over three or more days – this is because heavy drinking or binge sessions may put your health at risk.
If you or someone you know may have a problem with their alcohol consumption, speak to your GP and check out the NHS website for more help with alcohol support.
Do you choose low-alcohol drinks? Share your experience in the comments below….
This guide was reviewed on 23 August 2022 by Registered Nutritionist Kerry Torrens.
Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a Registered Nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food. Find her on Instagram at @kerry_torrens_nutrition_
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Drinkaware is an independent charity which aims to reduce alcohol-related harm by helping people make better choices about their drinking. It provides impartial, evidence-based information, advice and practical resources, raising awareness of alcohol and its harms, and working collaboratively with partners. Visit the Drinkaware website for more information.