We all know that alcohol isn't good for our health. Years of research and drink warnings tell us of the dangers of alcohol, yet it remains a normal part of life. But researchers at Imperial College London are thinking outside of the box with a new alternative that promises to leave you hangover-free and without any liver damage: Synthetic alcohol.
At first thought, it sounds too good to be true. A night out with friends that doesn't result in a bed-ridden Sunday? It turns out that synthetic alcohol can give your brain that feel-good sensation, while not actually making you drunk at all. So how does it work?
Synthetic Alcohol: Breaking it Down
Your typical sample of alcohol (spirits, wine, beer) contains a liquid from the natural fermentation of sugar. As the sugar is fermented, it goes into a state of glycolysis, where the sugar molecules breakdown in the absence of oxygen. After the sugar reaches glycolysis, it breaks the molecules down into 2 parts: carbon dioxide molecules and molecules of ethanol. This process is what creates the alcohol content in your drink that gives you a mind-altering experience.
With synthetic alcohol, the process does not include fermentation. Instead, synthetic ethanol is used in place of bio-ethanol to eliminate the presence of alcohol from fermentation. The synthetic ethanol is produced from a process of gasification, meaning that it is not limited to use on grains and sugars.
Just because the synthetic alcohol process doesn't include fermentation doesn't mean you won't feel anything by drinking it. According to Professor David Nutt, lead researcher of the synthetic alcohol called "Alcosynth," the drink will still give you a buzz, but in a different way. The alcohol-free drink can be altered to target specific types of the brain's stimuli, meaning you can choose the way you want to feel and its intensity. For example, consumers will be able to choose if they would like the effects of a party drink from a night out or the intensity of a drink at lunch with friends.
Synthetic alcohol still gives a "buzzing" sensation, but without the possibility of a hangover or liver damage
Our brains consist of something called GABA receptors. These receptors work as a chemical messenger, which controls the mood and sensations of the brain. After years of studying the GABA receptors and the effects of alcohol on the brain, Professor David Nutt discovered that he could essentially "turn on" different parts of the brain using Alcosynth. It's this targeted approach to the GABA receptors that allow for the fuzzy feeling of being drunk, sans alcohol.
Right now, we are probably about 5 years out from getting to taste this new alcohol-free cocktail for ourselves. But the audience is certainly there for this concept to take off. Alcosynth's effects only last for about 45 minutes, without any residual side effects post-drinking. Theoretically, this means that you could indulge in a drink during the day without having to worry about any unpleasant side effects after the 45 minute window. Plus, it's safe, much healthier than alcohol, and removes the risk of overdoing it on the drinks. Health-wise, Alcosynth appears to check all the boxes.
Alcohol and Health
Across the world, alcohol usage is not uncommon. And while the occasional drink is not necessarily a bad thing, alcohol dependence is. In just the United States alone, it is estimated that 15 million people struggle with alcohol addiction. Researchers are proposing the use of synthetic alcohol to replace spirits to help with the withdrawal process.
Each year, more than 88,000 people in the US and 7,700 people in the UK die from alcohol-related causes. Whether binge drinking or a bad interaction between drugs and alcohol, the amount of lives affected by alcohol consumption is significant. And generally speaking, alcohol can be a hazardous substance. Professor Nutt believes that if alcohol were discovered today, it would be illegal as a foodstuff, especially since the "safe" limit on alcohol would be one glass per year when following food standards criteria.
Alcohol leads to thousands of accidents and deaths per year
While synthetic alcohol may be a healthier and safer choice than regular alcohol, there are still many unknown factors. Long-term, we still aren't sure how the synthetic molecules will react to the body, or if they have lasting effects. Additionally, the synthetic alcohol does still create a type of "buzz" in the brain, which brings safety into question. Just because the drink does not contain alcohol, people could interpret that as a hall pass to drive cars or participate in activities that would not be safe while under the influence. And with over 30% of all driving fatalities being the result of alcohol-impaired driving, it's a concern that certainly has merit.
Ultimately, the concept of synthetic alcohol does offer many positives. The small intoxication time window, elimination of damage to the liver, and the inability to over-intoxicate are all hugely beneficial to health and safety. However, the uncertainty of its effects on the average consumer raise some concerns, as well as its possible risks for consumption by people with specific medical conditions.
For now, there is still much to be learned when it comes to synthetic alcohol. But as research and trials continue, the team at Imperial College London is hopeful of Alcosynth's release in the next 5 years. They're aiming to receive $26 million of funding to bring Alcosynth to the market, as well as reaching out to other drink companies to include it in their existing products. Who knows, you might find yourself sipping on an alcohol-free, buzz-inducing cocktail in just a matter of years. Oh, without the hangover, of course.