Is Alcohol Free Wine & Beer Really Alcohol Free?

Over the last few years in the UK there has been a large increase in people going alcohol free.  I’m frequently asked Is alcohol free wine & beer really alcohol free? so I thought I’d explain how much alcohol is in these drinks and why the term alcohol-free can be confusing. 

The quick answer is alcohol-free wine or beer made in the UK will contain a small amount of alcohol – up to 0.05% abv, but there is up to +/- 0.5% margin in measuring the alcohol content. The rules are different for drinks imported into the UK.

I’m sure you don’t really fancy sitting reading a number of legal food regulations to understand how much alcohol is in your wine or beer, so I’ve done the hard work for you. As you can imagine they were a particularly riveting read, but I managed to get through and have summarised what I’ve learned about the UK rules below.

What is ABV?

Before we kick off, let’s just explain alcohol by volume, better know as ABV.  This is the common measure for how much alcohol it is contained within a drink and is used worldwide. The standard measure of abv shows how much alcohol is contained in 100 millilitres of a drink at a temperature of 20C. 

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I won’t go into more detail here, but Wikipedia has loads more if you’re interested.

How Much Alcohol is in Alcohol-Free Drinks?

The simple fact is there is a small amount of alcohol in alcohol free wine and beer, but it’s a tiny amount. In the UK there is legislation guiding how drinks can be labelled based on how much alcohol they contain.  For drinks under 1.2%, the following names are given: 

  • Alcohol-Free
  • Dealcoholised
  • Low Alcohol
  • Non-Alcoholic

Let’s have a look at what each of these means.

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Alcohol-Free: Up to 0.05% 

The term alcohol-free can be applied to drinks with an alcohol content up to 0.05% abv.  In other words, there’s a tiny amount of alcohol within them. 

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Finding out there’s alcohol in alcohol-free drinks can put some people off, especially when they’re trying to abstain from alcohol completely.  However, it’s worth putting that into amount into perspective.  Some foods and drink contain naturally occurring alcohol with a higher abv.  For example, orange juice can contain alcohol up to 0.73%

Dealcoholised: Up to 0.5%

Drinks labelled as dealcoholised can contain up to 0.5% abv.

Some of you may already be thinking you said orange juice can contain alcohol, why isn’t that labelled as dealcoholised?

The reason comes down to the rather wordy legislation for dealcoholised:

“the drink, being an alcoholic drink from which the alcohol has been extracted, has an alcoholic strength by volume of not more than 0.5 per cent”

The key part here is “has been extracted” as this means that the drink first had to have contained alcohol and then had it removed down to under 0.5%. As this isn’t the case with orange juice or other naturally occurring alcohol in foods and drinks they are excluded from this rule.

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It does raise a question for some of the newer drinks released in recent years that have been specifically brewed to never exceed 0.5% – what should you label these?  However, we’ll discuss the need to update the legislation in a minute.

Low Alcohol: Up to 1.2%

The final category for drinks containing alcohol is low alcohol which is defined as drinks up to 1.2%. 

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I’m not really sure why an odd number like 1.2% was chosen as the cut off point.  In my experience in the UK, very few drinks fall into this category.  Most drinks either stay under the 0.5% or the next step tends to be the 2-2.8% range for small beer.

Non-Alcoholic: 0.0%

According to the regulations, the term non-alcoholic cannot be used with any drink that’s normally associated as alcoholic. That means in the UK, you cannot label a drink as non-alcoholic wine, beer, cider, etc.

There is one minor exception for non-alcoholic wine, but in this case it’s only for unfermented grape juice is being used for communion or sacrament in use.

Additional Margin on Alcohol-Free Drinks

With the definitions above it initially seems it’s clear how much alcohol is contained in drinks labelled as alcohol-freedealcoholised or low alcohol. However, things aren’t that simple.

Within the UK food regulations, there is also a rule that allows drinks under 5.5% abv to have a +/-0.5% leeway in the stated alcohol content. As alcohol-freedealcoholised or low alcohol drinks clearly fall under this tolerance, it means they can also have +/- 0.5% of what’s on the label.

It’s worth noting that this rule is on for drinks containing alcohol so non-alcoholic drinks are excluded from this margin. However, some research has shown that small amounts of alcohol can be found in fruit juices.

Alcohol-Free Drinks Made Overseas

The above rules are only applicable to drinks made in the UK, but those made outside the UK can follow the rules from their home country.

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Drinks made in the EU can be labelled alcohol-free up to 0.5%. Before Brexit, these drinks could be imported into the UK still labelled as alcohol-free due to the free movement of goods within the EU. I’ve not seen anything to indicate this has changed, so this is still the case until the regulations have caught up with Brexit (I’m happy to be corrected – just email me).

This obviously makes it harder food drinks manufacturers in the UK to compete with those made overseas as well as making it confusing for consumers.

Does Alcohol-Free Wine and Beer Contain Alcohol?

With the UK regulations above defining the labelling of no/low alcohol drinks, plus the additional nought +/- 0.5% leeway and different rule for overseas, it can be confusing to understand exactly how much alcohol is in an alcohol-free drink.

Table 1: Is Alcohol-Free Wine and Beer Really Alcohol-Free?

Original Limit
(Schedule 8)
Including Margin
(Schedule 5)
Alcohol Free0.05%0.55%0.5%
Low Alcohol1.2%1.70%
Non Alcoholic0.0%0.0%

Possible Changes to UK Alcohol-Free Regulations

As most consumers don’t know the details of these regulations, given the choice between drinks labelled as alcohol-free and something dealcoholised or low alcohol, they would choose the former believing it has no alcohol. This gives those drinks that are imported from into the UK an advantage as they’re able to use the alcohol-free label to a higher limit.  This can cause confusion for some consumers.

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There has recently been a push to try and bring the UK in line with EU.  This would allow UK manufacturers to label their drinks consistently with those that are imported into the UK giving consistency for consumers.  It seems like a logical step as it’s nearly impossible to get drunk on 0.5% drinks, but things are yet to change.

However, the confusion doesn’t stop with the rules on how to label these drinks.

Everyday Use of No/Low Terms

Whilst the labelling rules might be slightly confusing for no/low alcohol drinks, the main problem with them is that outside of labelling, they’re very rarely followed.

As you can imagine, most people haven’t sat down and read the Food Labelling Regulations from 1996 and so don’t know the rules. Consequently, in everyday use people will use the terms they think best describe the drinks so freely swap the terms alcohol-freenon-alcoholicdealcoholised and low alcohol

This can prove a challenge for anyone in the no or low alcohol drinks market.

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Here at Good Stuff Drinks, we know the rules about the labelling of these drinks. However, we deliberately choose to use these terms interchangeably to reflect peoples common use of the terms. If we only talked about dealcoholised drinks, nobody would find us online as most people are searching and using terms like alcohol-freenon-alcoholic and low alcohol.

Alcohol-Free Drinks Do Contain Alcohol

As we’ve seen, drinks that are labelled as alcohol-free do contain small amounts of alcohol. These amounts are lower than amounts found in many common everyday foods and drinks, but for some they may choose not to drink them

These reasons may include pregnancy, a medical condition, recovering from alcohol addiction, or some other reason.  If you are unsure if you should continue to drink alcohol-free drinks now you understand how much alcohol they contain, I would recommend you speak to a medical professional with any questions you may have.

Alcohol-Free: Something for Everyone

The labelling regulations for alcohol free drinks may be confusing, but the simple fact is that most people consider anything containing less than 0.5% abv as alcohol-free.

As research has shown that you cannot get drunk on 0.5% drinks and they’re frequently healthier than other common alternatives you can find in pubs and restaurants, it makes sense choosing these drinks.

Whilst it would be great to make the labelling in laws made simpler or consistent with the EU or the rest of the world, the simple fact is most people use the terms interchangeably anyway. Changing the rules won’t change peoples use of the terms, but it would make it easier for UK companies to compete.

For anyone that just wants to avoid the side effects of alcohol or risk of getting drunk, it doesn’t matter whether it’s labelled as alcohol-free, non-alcoholic or dealcoholised as long as it’s under 0.5%.

If the alcohol content is a real concern to you then the best thing you can do is check the labels for the abv.

Why Not Try Alcohol-Free Drinks Today ?

If you’re new to no and low alcohol drinks, then I thoroughly recommend checking out Wise Bartender.  They’ve got a huge range of alcohol-free drinkers to try.

Just click on the links and use the code GOODSTUFF to get 5% off:

If you’re new to alcohol-free drinks, I would recommend starting with their Mixed Packs. These give you a great chance to try a variety of drinks to find your favourites.  

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