Looking for an Alternative to That Glass of Wine?
The Advent of Artificial Alcohol and Artificial Drinks
July 17, 2017, Bruno Jacobsen
The alcohol industry is used to competition but not so much to disruption. It has some of the most devout followers and healthiest profit margins of any industry. But some people are trying to bring change to the industry, whether by creating wine in a laboratory or by getting rid of alcohol entirely. Are their efforts being rewarded?
Late last year there was some buzz around Professor David Nutt, a British psychiatrist and neuropsychopharmacologist, and current president of the European Brain Council. He told The Independent that he discovered a new form of synthetic alcohol, aptly named alcosynth, which mimics the same positive effects alcohol has on the brain, such as relaxation, without many of its side effects, like liver damage, heart damage, and those painful hangovers.
But what is alcosynth? Although he has patented 90 different alcosynth compounds, Nutt has kept it a closely guarded secret and provided little information about it. While alcohol produces a compound called acetaldehyde, which cannot be broken down by the body and is considered one of the causes of hangovers, alcosynth does not. Acetaldehyde is also a cause of tissue damage if it builds up faster than the body can metabolize it, which happens when one drinks a few too many drinks.
According to LiveScience, Nutt also reported that a person only needs to consume milligrams of alcosynth to get the same effects that come with several grams of alcohol, which would make it nearly calorie-free. However, with little information on the nature of alcosynth and with a present lack of rigorous scientific studies exploring its health effects, it's too early to know what the real consequences on the body would be.
But the most interesting development seems to be the direction that alcoholic drinks like wine and beer are taking. Traditionally, these go through long manufacturing processes as opposed non-alcoholic drinks, such as Coca-Cola or lemonades.
However, at least in part, this could be changing. One example is Ava Winery, a San Francisco-based startup, which is trying to engineer wine in the lab that tastes and looks like the real deal. Albeit still a little off, progress is being made. According to New Scientist, using different tools they are able to identify some key flavor molecules in wines and, by experimenting with different chemical compounds and having wine experts approve the taste, replicate their original flavors.
One positive outcome of synthetic wine is its lower cost compared to traditional wines. Once the formula is well understood, ramping up production and achieving economies of scale could bring prices down significantly, making even the most expensive wines available to everyone. But, of course, that it would be called "wine" is unlikely, due to industry regulations. The health effects might be different too, and some adept sommeliers might argue that it will never taste like the real thing.
The bigger point is that recent advances in science suggest that there may be a time where a lot of the traditional processes in the making of alcoholic beverages can be substituted by drinks engineered in labs, whether it's alcosynth or regular alcohol. Maybe in a few decades, those who enjoy a pint of beer on a Friday night after work will still get it, but it will be neither real beer nor real alcohol.