You might have noticed more people taking a pass on alcohol lately. In February 2021, a report by the beverage analysis firm IWSR predicted that the market for no- and low-alcohol drinks would increase 31 percent globally by 2024.
“The last few years have seen the rise of the ‘sober curious’ movement,” says Kerry Benson, RD, a coauthor of the book Mocktail Party: 75 Plant-Based Non-Alcoholic Recipes for Every Occasion. Increasingly, people are discovering the physical and mental benefits of an alcohol-free lifestyle.
With this trend has come a new generation of nonalcoholic beers. Modeled after flavorful craft beers, these new brews have little in common with nonalcoholic beers of yesteryear, which often had an off, cooked flavor. Not only do they taste better, many of the newer buzz-free brews are made with health and wellness in mind. Some companies, such as WellBeing Brewing Company and Athletic Brewing Company, evoke a healthy lifestyle with their brand names.
“Nonalcoholic beers are a great way for individuals to reduce their intake of alcohol while still being able to enjoy the taste and experience of a beer. By removing the alcohol, you’re taking out a compound that is toxic and that increases the risk of chronic disease,” says Benson. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), alcohol is “a toxic and psychoactive substance” that “contributes to3 million deaths each year globally and is responsible for more than 5 percent of the global burden of disease.
Whether you’re just cutting back, pregnant, or in recovery from addiction, there are many reasons to consider these new options. But before you pick up a six-pack, here’s what you should know about nonalcoholic beers and your health.
RELATED: 15 Celebrities Who Don’t Drink Alcohol
What Is Nonalcoholic Beer?
Nonalcoholic beers are simply beers that have either had the alcohol removed or have been brewed to contain less alcohol than the legal limit. By law, beverages can claim to be nonalcoholic as long as they don’t exceed the limit of 0.5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Before you freak out, be aware there are trace amounts of alcohol in many everyday foods and beverages. It’s a natural product of fermentation. A study published in August of 2016 in the Journal of Analytical Toxicology found measurable alcohol in bananas, apple juice, and bread. A nonalcoholic beer (or even several of them) is not going to get you buzzed. But it can take the place of boozy beers, giving you an option for when you want beer without the hangover.
How Is Nonalcoholic Beer Made?
Beer is made by fermenting grains, which means that microorganisms, usually yeast, break down the sugar in grains to alcohol and other by-products. Some old-fashioned brands make nonalcoholic beer by preventing fermentation, which also happens to prevent flavor development. Others brands cook the beer post-fermentation to burn off the alcohol. Unfortunately, neither of these legacy methods produces great-tasting beers. To compensate, manufacturers sometimes add sugar or high fructose corn syrup, which leads to a cloyingly sweet beer.
Brewers on the leading edge of nonalcoholic craft beer use high-tech, top-secret methods to produce beer that tastes more like traditional craft beer without adding sweeteners. The flavor is fresher, bolder, and often indistinguishable from the alcohol-containing craft beers that inspired them.
“I love nonalcoholic beers, especially Rightside Brewing out of Atlanta. They have a citrus wheat and American IPA and both are very good,” says Benson. She also recommends nonalcoholic beers from Athletic Brewing Company, Ceria Brewing, Partake, and Dogfish Head. They're delicious, and they also have fewer calories than regular beer.
RELATED: Mocktail Recipes So Good, You Won’t Believe They’re Booze-Free
How Does Nonalcoholic Beer Compare to Regular Beer?
Taking the alcohol out of beer does make it healthier, but that doesn’t mean you should drink it to excess. Most nonalcoholic beers offer very little nutritional value, and are mostly carbohydrates (usually on par with regular beer). Their lack of alcohol does mean they tend to be lower in calories, though: Athletic Brewing’s popular Upside Dawn beer, for example, has only 50 calories and 12 grams of carbs per 12-ounce can. A can of Budweiser, by comparison, has 145 calories and 10.6 grams of carbs. (Bud Light: 110 calories and 6.6 grams carbs.)
“What is great about nonalcoholic beers relative to alcoholic beer is that you'll often find a Nutrition Facts panel and an ingredient list, which you can review to decide whether that particular drink aligns with your personal goals,” says Benson. “For example, a handful of nonalcoholic beers do contain added sugar, which should be consumed mindfully. Alcoholic drinks don’t typically list this information, so we’re somewhat in the dark about what we are drinking.”
Is Nonalcoholic Beer Healthy?
Beyond looking at the number of calories, grams of carbohydrates, and whether there’s added sugar, you should find a nonalcoholic beer you actually like, says Benson. “That will help decrease your alcohol use long term.” And cutting alcohol use is definitely good for your health. A study published in the journal The Lancet in August 2018 concluded, “Our results show that the safest level of drinking is none.”
Over the years, other studies have suggested that moderate alcohol consumption may be beneficial for health, Benson points out. “However, a growing body of evidence suggests that even light to moderate drinking may have negative health effects, particularly in the context of cancer. Organizations including the American Cancer Society and the American Institute for Cancer Research state that for cancer prevention, it is best to not drink alcohol,” she says.
In addition to avoiding alcohol, there may be other benefits associated with nonalcoholic beer. Some Olympic athletes have embraced it as a sports drink, according toNPR. A randomized controlled trial published in the journal Nutrients in June 2016 found that nonalcoholic beer may be an effective recovery beverage after exercise. Some small studies indicate that nonalcoholic beer may reduce inflammation and even common colds. Those studies are encouraging, according to Benson, “but I don't think that enough evidence exists to draw conclusions at this time.”
RELATED: Alcohol-Free Ways to Unwind at the End of a Long Day
Does Nonalcoholic Beer Have Any Health Risks?
It’s important to remember that nonalcoholic beers do contain some alcohol. And that 0.0 percent to 0.5 percent ABV number you see on the label is no iron-clad guarantee. There have been issues in the past with nonalcoholic beers found to exceed the legal limit of 0.5 percent ABV. One study found that 30 percent of the nonalcoholic beers tested had more alcohol by volume than was indicated on their label, and six of the beers tested contained up to 1.8 percent alcohol by volume.
“There are some people who should be mindful that these products do contain small amounts of alcohol. There’s some debate over whether people who are pregnant should include these beverages,” says Benson.
Others who may want to proceed with caution include anyone navigating a substance use disorder. The look, aroma, and flavor of nonalcoholic beers can trigger cravings for alcohol for some people in addiction recovery.
“Whether or not to enjoy nonalcoholic beers really depends on the individual’s comfort level,” says Benson. “Everybody is different. For some people, these beverages can help support their recovery journey. Others find it triggering. For many, it changes over time and what may be triggering early on in sobriety is helpful later.” Knowing yourself is key to knowing whether nonalcoholic beers are a good choice for you.
RELATED: Drinking Less Improves Well-Being Even in Moderate Drinkers, Study Finds
The Bottom Line on Nonalcoholic Beer
Whenever nonalcoholic beers replace regular beers, it’s a win for your health. It’s important to remember, however, that though these alternative beverages are typically lower in calories, they’re still not calorie- or carb-free. And, as with anything you eat or drink, it’s a good idea to scan the labels, avoid options with added sugar, and enjoy them in moderation.
Benson thinks that nonalcoholic beers are an especially good swap in fitness settings, where alcohol has become omnipresent in recent years. “If you think you are rehydrating with a regular beer after a 5K race, think again,” she says. “You’d be much better off with a nonalcoholic beer.”