Synthetic Alcohol Promises to Make Drinking Safer. But Experts Are Wary

Since our ancestors began drinking alcohol millions of years ago and have not stopped since. As a marker of taste, social lubricant and foundation of celebrations around the globe, alcohol is ingrained in almost every culture.

It is almost certain that U.S. regulators wouldn’t allow companies to introduce it on the market today if they tried. 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.
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Imagine if you could have the buzz from a drink but not the negative 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.

But experts aren’t convinced. According to Dr. Anna Lembke (medical director of Stanford University School of Medicine’s addiction medicine program) and the author of “Things that seem too good to be true”, things often are. 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 marketed as safer alternatives to smoking. They haven’t worked out the way they were supposed to.

Is it possible to fake alcohol in a safe way? Or would synthetic versions pose new dangers? It is possible to make an imitation of alcohol that doesn’t lead to dependence or addiction. Is it possible to create fake alcohol that makes people who are already suffering from alcohol-use disorders 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.”

On a recent weeknight, I poured myself a glass of GABA Labs’ botanical product, Sentia. The burgundy liquor was mixed with seltzer over ice and looked like something I would order in a New York City restaurant. It had winter spices and rose-scented notes, with a slight bitter aftertaste. (My boyfriend, helpfully, said it “tasted like plants.”)

The drink felt very much like a cocktail. As such, I was enjoying slow, smaller sips while letting the feeling sink in. By the time I finished my drink, I felt mellow and a little fuzzy around the edges, as if I’d had half a glass of wine. The effect wasn’t dramatic, but it did more or less deliver on Sentia’s promises. How?

The answer is in the name of GABA Labs, which was co-founded by David Nutt, a neuropsychopharmacologist who used to lead clinical science at the NIAAA. (He’s infamous for arguing, based on research he co-published, that alcohol is more dangerous to society than heroin or crack cocaine, and is a vocal proponent of expanding the use of psychedelics.) Sentia was created by Nutt using botanical compounds to stimulate activity of GABA (gamma aminobutyric acids), which is a neurotransmitter responsible for calming the brain. GABA is also similar to alcohol, so you may feel stress and anxiety diminish after drinking a glass. If you drink too many glasses, this feeling can lead to loss of control, coherence, and eventually, consciousness.

Nutt wanted Sentia to be safe. “We don’t want to produce a massive stimulation,” Nutt says. “We’ve also worked to develop compounds which work relatively shortly, so they get in fast and get out fast.”

Sentia’s product isn’t the only one of this kind. Psychedelic Water is one of many startups offering alcohol-free beverages. These three companies have some trendy brags: Supermodel Bella Hadid was a partner with Kin Euphorics; Ghia was created by an ex Glossier executive, and Psychedelic Water has gone viral on TikTok. IWSR, a beverage industry research company, estimates that non-alcoholic spirit sales increased by nearly 300% in America between 2016 and 2020.

However, the tests required for it to be on the market will require a lot of time and money. Sentia can be considered a temporary solution. Since it’s plant-based and uses ingredients already used in food products and supplements, bringing it to market is much more straightforward.

Without clinical trials for the synthetic molecule and limited studies on Sentia, Orren and Nutt are limited in the promises they can make about their products’ effects—but they’re perfectly willing to raise the possibility that they Could There are big rewards. “If you want to have a good effect that you might expect from alcohol without a lot of the things some people don’t want, including breast cancer and liver failure and shrinking of your brain,” Orren says, “then it’s worth thinking about things we’re thinking about.”

Margie Skeer is an associate professor of community medicine and public health at Tufts University School of Medicine. She believes synthetic alcohol holds great potential. “Any time that we can reduce harm associated with the things that we do on a daily basis is a positive thing.” However, “the public really needs to be cautious with new products that promise all of the good of a vice without the negative side effects,” she says. “We don’t have any research. We don’t have any data.”

Unintended consequences may also be a factor to take into consideration. How does it work if fake alcohol is mixed with prescription or real drugs? (Orren says they haven’t specifically studied that possibility when it comes to Sentia, but concedes that “there’s a risk of everything.”)

Powell, from the NIAAA, also notes that a single alcoholic drink can increase the risk of car crashes and other accidents, so any substance that alters someone’s mental state—however slightly—needs to be carefully examined. (Orren urges people to treat Sentia “with great respect, in terms of driving or operating physical machinery.”)

Any product that promises neurological rewards could also become habit-forming, says Stanford’s Lembke. “There’s no way to get a euphoric effect or relaxant effect and not have some kind of rebound phenomenon,” she says. “In terms of biological systems, there’s no free lunch.” (While Orren and Nutt can’t promise their products won’t be habit-forming without clinical trials, Nutt emphasizes that he’s worked in psychopharmacology for decades and developed some of the methodologies used for assessing tolerance.)

Then there’s marketing. “I would want to be very careful about how … a product that boasts no hangovers and getting drunk without any of the negative effects will be perceived by teenagers and how it will be marketed accordingly,” Skeer says. (The Sentia label says the product is “not recommended” for anyone younger than 18.)

Skeer and Lembke both say they think of synthetic alcohol when thinking about ecigarettes. This is a product which reduces harm but has drawbacks. Like synthetic alcohol, e-cigarettes were invented to keep the good parts of a dangerous habit—the ritual, the sensation of dragging on a cigarette, the nicotine—while eliminating many of the harmful components. Also like synthetic alcohol, many experts worried there wasn’t adequate research to prove their benefits and rule out their harms. And their appeal to young people sparked a teenage epidemic, with teen vaping becoming so widespread that lawmakers and regulators enacted drastic restrictions on e-cigarettes’ marketing and sale, affecting both underage users and the adult smokers for whom they were intended.

Spotty research, questionable marketing tactics and minimal safeguards against underage use ultimately tainted whatever promise was associated with e-cigarettes, and their rise and fall portends a fate that could befall synthetic alcohol companies if they aren’t careful. Orren thinks the world needs a product similar to his.

“Alcohol is a wonderful thing that’s brought a lot of people together, but there’s a huge downside to it…and it’s an unnecessary downside,” Orren says. “If we can deliver this, imagine what that means for families in the future. Imagine what that means for our ability to relax.”


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