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

9 minute read

Our ancestors started drinking booze millions of years ago, and we never stopped. Alcohol is embedded in nearly every culture in the world as a social lubricant, marker of taste and cornerstone of celebrations.

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.”

On a recent weeknight, I poured myself a glass of GABA Labs’ botanical product, Sentia. Mixed with seltzer water over ice, the burgundy liquid looked like a cocktail I might order at a pricey New York City bar. I tasted notes of rose and winter spices, followed by a slightly bitter aftertaste. (My boyfriend, helpfully, said it “tasted like plants.”)

Because it really did feel like a cocktail, I found myself behaving as though it were: taking slow, small sips and relaxing into the experience as I did. 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.) Nutt formulated Sentia by mixing botanical compounds that could stimulate the activity of gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that produces calming signals in the brain. Alcohol also mimics the effects of GABA, which is why after a glass of wine or beer, you might feel anxiety and stress subside. But if one glass turns into many, that feeling might tip over into loss of control, coherence and (eventually) consciousness.

Nutt wanted to avoid that risk with Sentia. “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 is not the only product of its kind on the market. Kin Euphorics, Ghia and Psychedelic Water are three of several startups selling alcohol-free beverages that use plant compounds to create a slightly buzzy, relaxing sensation. All three have trendy bragging rights: supermodel Bella Hadid is a partner in Kin Euphorics, Ghia was founded by an ex-Glossier executive and Psychedelic Water went viral on TikTok this year. All told, non-alcoholic spirit sales in the U.S. grew by almost 300% from 2016 to 2020, according to beverage-industry research firm IWSR.

GABA Labs is also working on bringing the synthetic alcohol it invented to market. “The botanical is wonderful, but it’s not near as strong or effective” as the synthetic version of alcohol Nutt has created, says GABA Labs co-founder David Orren. As Orren describes it, the synthetic molecule works in much the same way Sentia does, only better—and without any plant-y flavor, making it more versatile.

But the testing required to bring it to market would take years of research and piles of money. Sentia is sort of a stop-gap measure. 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 have big payoffs. “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.”

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The concept of synthetic alcohol has potential, says Margie Skeer, an associate professor of public health and community medicine at the Tufts University School of Medicine. “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.”

There may be unintended consequences to consider, too. What happens if someone combines fake alcohol with real alcohol or prescription 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.)

Both Skeer and Lembke say that synthetic alcohol makes them think of e-cigarettes, a harm reduction product that comes with 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. But Orren believes the world is ready for a product like 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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Write to Jamie Ducharme at jamie.ducharme@time.com