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About SickKids

January 6, 2010

Motherisk study reveals “non-alcoholic” or “low-alcohol drinks” may contain more alcohol than labels claim

TORONTO – Pregnant women should be cautious when it comes to drinking non-alcoholic or low-alcoholic beverages, says a new study which warns alcohol content labels may be misleading.

Researchers at The Hospital for Sick Children’s (SickKids) Motherisk Program found pregnant women may be misguided by labels and unknowingly expose themselves and their unborn babies to higher levels of ethanol (pure alcohol) than the products claim to contain. The study is published in the January 4 advance online edition of the Canadian Journal of Clinical Pharmacology.

Evidence shows alcohol consumption during pregnancy may harm the developing fetus, though the exact quantity of alcohol needed to do so remains unknown. Doctors typically recommend that women who are or who may become pregnant should abstain completely from drinking alcohol. However, this can be difficult for some people who are dependent on alcohol or who consume it regularly. Non-alcoholic wines, beers, near beers (low-alcohol beers) or related drinks are often used as a safer solution.

“The results are very concerning, women may think they are on safe ground, when in fact they are consuming alcohol,” says Dr. Gideon Koren, principal investigator of the study, Director of the Motherisk Program, Senior Scientist at SickKids and Professor of Paediatrics, Pharmacology, Pharmacy and Medical Genetics at the University of Toronto. “The bigger concern is for those women who are consuming large amounts of these products regularly.”

The scientists used gas chromatography to examine the ethanol concentration of 45 different beverages available in Canada that claimed to contain no alcohol or low levels of alcohol (less than 0.5 per cent of ethanol). After testing three bottles or cans of each type of drink, they found 13 of the 45 beverages contained ethanol levels higher than the declared concentration. Six beverages claiming to contain no alcohol actually contained more than one per cent of ethanol.

An additional concern is that these drinks can be easily purchased at grocery and convenience stores and consumed in large quantities by people getting behind the wheel of a car or bicycle, says Koren. Non-alcoholic and low-alcohol beverages are regulated by Health Canada's Food and Drugs Act.

The researchers identified the degradation of fruit as a potential contributor of the alcohol found in the drinks. "However, manufacturers of the beverages should be aware that alcohol is generated through the degradation process and have mechanisms to monitor and ensure that ethanol remains below the limit stated on their labels," they write.

Women who are concerned about possible consumption of alcohol can call the Motherisk Alcohol and Substance Helpline at 1-877-327-4636.

The SickKids Motherisk Program is a clinical research and teaching program that provides evidence-based information and guidance about the safety or risk to the developing fetus or infant, as a result of maternal exposure to drugs, chemicals, diseases, radiation or environmental agents.

The research was supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Research Leadership for Better Pharmacotherapy During Pregnancy and Lactation and SickKids Foundation.