The low/no labelling debate - analysis
Despite its seemingly exponential growth, the low/no sector remains largely unregulated. Rachel Badham takes a look at labelling guidance and what brands can do to maintain transparency for drinkers
Consumers are not just dipping their toes into low/no – for many, it is the category of choice as moderation becomes one of the biggest buzzwords among drinkers. But amid the astronomical boom of the low/no category, it seems regulating bodies weren’t prepared for such developments and the sector continues to lack clear-cut labelling legislation regarding what constitutes alcohol-free in the UK.
Echoing the days of vague pandemic guidance which saw the public take judgements into their own hands, labelling rules for low/no beverages stand as recommendations rather than concrete regulations, with low/no producers largely being left to figure it out for themselves.
“The world of low/no is still a growing trend and government legislation hasn’t quite caught up with consumer habits,” says Emily Laws, head of brand for Lucky Saint.
“This means there are some grey areas in legislation around what is classed as alcohol-free, which can cause confusion.”
Looking back to the root of the problem, Club Soda co-founder Laura Willoughby explains why there is no existing legislation surrounding low/no labelling.
“In 2014, the government created a labelling bill which included a sunset clause for two particular categories of product, which in this case were cheese and low/no drinks,” she says. Despite plans to reassess the regulations ahead of December 2018 when the clause expired, the legislation was terminated with no legally-binding labelling requirements in place.
“With low/no, we’ve got an industry that’s growing at a faster pace than anyone was anticipating, but the government hasn’t had time to concentrate on this, which has left us without legislation,” Willoughby adds, as 2016’s Brexit announcement dominated political proceedings.
BETWEEN THE GUIDELINES
Current guidelines for low/no products offer suggestions around what category a low/no beverage falls into depending on its abv. And it seems that legislation needs to be updated as well as enforced. Big Drop Brewing founder, and newly appointed co-chair of the Adult Non-Alcoholic Beverage Association (ANBA) regulatory affairs sub-committee, Rob Fink, gives a run down of the current guidelines.
“If a drink has an abv of between 0% and 0.05%, then UK guidance suggests that you use the phrase alcohol-free to describe it,” says Fink.
"Anything between 0.05% and 0.5% abv is commonly described as dealcoholised, while anything between 0.5% and 1.2% abv is considered low-alcohol.”
However, Fink highlights the ongoing campaign in the drinks industry for 0.5% and below to be categorised as alcohol-free in line with EU regulations, as international disparities create confusion among producers and consumers alike.
Willoughby adds: “In the market there’s a big race to 0%, but 0.5% is a naturally occurring level of alcohol that’s in all sorts of food products. You can get ice cream with more alcohol in than some low/no drinks.”
And as the current UK guidance is not compulsory, Fink suggests that the lack of regulation has led to an unequal playing field in the low/no industry as some producers disregard guidelines while others comply.
“We’re a UK producer, and we’ve lost listings because we shouldn’t technically say that our beer is alcohol-free at 0.5%, and this can cause confusion among the trade.”
In terms of the impact the lack of up-to-date legislation is having on the low/ no sector, Fink says it is “stifling innovation and growth within the category”. He adds: “We should be on par with our competitors in the EU as the category expands.”
Willougbhy also emphasises the importance of regulations in creating transparency for consumers: “Consumers need to be able to make informed choices, and it’s vital that they aren’t put off from low/no products because the labelling is ambiguous and confusing.”
As the industry waits on legislation, it seems that consumer education is a priority for producers and retailers.
“It’s important for producers and brands to create as much clarity as possible”, says Lucky Saint’s Laws. “For example, we use easy-to-understand comparisons to everyday items to explain that 0.5% abv is alcohol-free, as is recognised across Europe and hopefully soon in the UK. A bottle of Lucky Saint contains about the same amount of alcohol as a ripe banana or a piece of rye bread.”
Having opened a permanent low/no Club Soda shop last year, Willoughby says that staff training and consumer education are paramount in ensuring transparency with shoppers.
Big Drop’s Fink recommends that any unsure low/no producers contact ANBA, which is currently assembling a detailed information pack on labelling rules.
And it also seems of equal importance that producers adhere to universal drinks labelling rules. Asahi Europe & International chief marketing offi cer, Grant McKenzie, says: “When it comes to our low/no beers we follow the same principles with responsibility messaging as we would for regular beers with an age warning icon, and highlight our dedicated aboutalcohol.com website, which shares important information about alcohol consumption from relevant and trusted sources.”
As the trend towards low and no keeps growing, legislators will need to keep pace to ensure both consumers and producers are on the same page.