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Dutch researchers determined that people’s tongues didn’t care that much about ABV.

Mike Pomranz
December 03, 2018

No matter how similar a non-alcoholic beer and a regular beer tastes, you’re going to notice a difference if you drink a six-pack of one compared to the other. But what if you just have a few tastes? Can your brain really tell a difference? A new study suggests that, when it comes to your brain’s reward activity at least, non-alcoholic and regular beers are surprisingly similar.

Researchers at Wageningen University in The Netherlands looked at 21 healthy men between the ages of 18 (keep in mind, it’s Europe) and 35 who considered themselves regular beer drinkers. The participants underwent an MRI scan while tasting a mix of beverages which included both a non-alcoholic Amstel 0.0 beer and the same non-alcoholic beer but with its ABV raised to 4.8 percent thanks to the addition of pure ethanol alcohol. This method was used to assure that the beers tasted identical except for the alcohol. (A regular Amstel beer is brewed differently than the non-alcoholic version, so simply using a regular Amstel would have created a variable in taste.)

“In conclusion, we found no differences in acute brain reward upon consumption of NA-beer with and without alcohol, when presented in a context where regular alcoholic beer is expected,” the study determined. “This suggests that in regular consumers beer flavor rather than the presence of alcohol is the main driver of the consumption experience.” To put it another way, the authors also state that this finding “suggests that there is no direct detection of 5% alcohol by receptors on the tongue when presented in a beer context.”

Importantly, researchers did note, “Taste activation after swallowing was significantly greater for alcoholic than for NA-beer in the inferior frontal gyrus/anterior insula and dorsal prefrontal cortex (superior frontal gyrus),” pointing out that not everything is identical in these two drinking experiences. However, they then added, “This appears to be due to sensory stimulation by ethanol rather than reward processing.”

Overall, lead author Paul Smeets stated that his results “could mean that consumers get just as much satisfaction from drinking alcohol-free or low-alcohol beer, as long as the taste is close enough to beer that contains alcohol,” according to the Dutch site AD.nl. The study went on to suggest that further research should look into the role labeling plays in this type of brain activation for non-alcoholic versus alcoholic beers.

For the record, the study was funded by The Dutch Beer Institute, which despite its prosaic name was founded in 2009 to provide beer drinkers with “access to scientific findings about anything that can help them lead healthier lives.” So these results would seem to line up with the organization’s stated mission. And with Heineken making a big push in the non-alcoholic beer department, a bit of positive news for its Amstel 0.0 certainly doesn’t hurt either.

Meanwhile, the paper also does seem to gloss over the fact that, yes, alcohol has major effects beyond the tasting portion of drinking a beer. Yes, taste is important, but if that’s all that mattered, beer probably wouldn’t be as popular as it is.

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