If companies tried to bring it to market for the first time today, however, U.S. regulators would almost certainly forbid it. More than 200 health conditions—from cancer to dementia to cirrhosis— are linked to alcohol; it contributes to 3 million deaths globally each year, many via auto accidents and suicides; and in the U.S. alone, more than 14 million people struggle with alcohol-use disorder. It’s dangerous stuff, even though billions of people ingest it with hardly a second thought.
But what if you could get the buzz of a good drink without the buzz-killing side effects? That’s the marketing hype bubbling up from startups around the world making beverages that promise to make you feel tipsy using the magic of plant extracts, not alcohol. These companies claim that after a botanical beverage, you’ll feel more sociable and relaxed without getting drunk, eliminating the hangover (and bad decisions) that sometimes follow a boozy night.
One such startup, the U.K.-based GABA Labs, launched its first product, an “active botanical spirit” called Sentia, earlier this year in Europe. Sentia is made from plant extracts that can mimic the effects of alcohol, and is meant to top out around the feeling of having a glass or two of wine. But its founders want to go even further: They have also created a (not-yet-for-sale) synthetic alcohol molecule that they say can be used to create dupes of any booze on the market, from beer to rum to champagne. The company’s founders don’t yet have enough evidence to legally make claims about their products’ health effects, but the implication is clear: synthetic alcohol could capture the good parts of drinking while ditching the death and disease associated with it.
But experts aren’t convinced. Things that sound too good to be true usually are, says Dr. Anna Lembke, medical director of addiction medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine and author of Dopamine Nation. “There’s always the promise of some new molecule that’s going to do exactly what the old molecule did but not have the harmful effects,” she says. “Every single time, that has not panned out.” Heroin, for example, was intended to be a safer form of morphine. E-cigarettes were pitched as a less dangerous way to smoke. Neither has worked out as planned.
Can alcohol really be faked in a healthy way, or would a synthetic version introduce new risks? Is it possible to create a product that imitates alcohol without introducing the possibility of addiction or dependence? And could fake alcohol make people already struggling with alcohol-use disorder more likely to relapse? “Given the significant harms caused when alcohol is misused, this is an interesting approach,” says Patricia Powell, deputy director of the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). “However, it raises a series of questions that we don’t have the answers to yet.”