Behind the Label: better booze

Red wine
If you don't know what's gone into making your drink, stick to organic beer and wine this Christmas, says Pat Thomas

It's that time of year again. Party time. A time of good cheer. Time to hoist one in honour of the old year and in hope for the new one. The holiday season is traditionally a time of alcoholic indulgence - and there's no exception here at the Ecologist offices.

Regular readers of Behind the Label will know what's coming next, of course. Just one simple question: do we need to poison ourselves in order to have fun?

According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), several components and contaminants identified in beer, wine and spirits are known or suspected human carcinogens, including aldehydes, nitrosamines, aflatoxins, ethyl carbamate or urethane, asbestos and arsenic compounds.

It is as scary as it is unnecessary, since good alternatives exist for wine, beer, cider and spirits - the UK's Soil Association has more than 50 organic alcohol producers on the books, and more and more of these are at prices that compare favourably to conventional booze.

If you are a wine fan then you should know that conventionally grown grapes rely heavily on the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilisers. Earlier this year, a Pesticide Action Network report entitled ‘Message in a Bottle' found traces of as many as 10 different pesticides in wines on sale in the EU.

Lab tests on 40 bottles showed ‘substantial evidence' of widespread contamination, and some of the 24 pesticides detected in total are listed as potential carcinogens by EU health authorities.

Wines tested included 10 each from France and Germany, and also bottles from Portugal, Chile, South Africa, Austria, Australia and Italy. All were on sale in the EU and three cost more than £200 per bottle.

Apart from being kinder to the environment, some types of organic alcohol may even be healthier than their conventional counterparts.

Organic wine, if it is minus the sulphites - not always a guarantee - may give you less of a hangover than traditionally preserved wines. It is believed that around 1 per cent of the population is allergic to sulphites, which can also cause an itchy nose and congestion.

Wine not?

Better than this, however: organic wine may contain more health-promoting antioxidants than conventional wine. Studies comparing organic red wines and conventional red wines have shown that organic wines have the highest amounts of resveratrol.

Resveratrol is produced in the skins of dark-red fruits to prevent fungal attack. Besides being an anti-fungal agent, it is a powerful antioxidant linked to the decreased risk of cardiovascular disease associated with the moderate consumption of red wine. It may also have anti-cancer properties. In testing, organic wines average 32 per cent higher resveratrol levels than their conventional counterparts.

An Italian study has suggested that an organic wine's carbon footprint is half that of a conventional wine because fewer chemicals are used.

Beer in moderation, like red wine, does have health benefits. The malt and hops used in both lager and bitter contain fl avonoids, which counter cell damage and help reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease.

Dark beer especially can contain useful amounts of B vitamins. If you are drinking beer that is not certified organic, however, you will most likely be imbibing other chemicals as well. On average, non- organic hops are sprayed as many as 14 times a year with 15 different pesticides.

Then there are residues from farming processes, storage/preservative requirements, several of which are carcinogenic, as well as the residues of industrial cleaners, and flavours, colours and preservatives such as beta glucanase, ammonia caramel, sulphur dioxide, protease, amyloglucosidase, propylene glycol alginate and silicone. Many believe these additives dampen the flavour and give you hangovers.

As with everything else we consume, beer has a footprint. According to a report by Sustain, the ingredients from locally brewed beer may travel as little as 600 miles, whereas beer from a major German brewer could clock up 24,000 miles in terms of ingredients and product.

So to cut down on your beer miles as well as avoiding major contaminants, consider partying with local and organic brands (see Ethical Consumer magazine's 2006 ethical shopping guide to bottled beer and lager).

The UK is an apple-growing nation and good, traditional cider is made by a simple method. It is the fermented juice of the apple, with nothing added and nothing taken away. Cider can suffer form the same contamination problems as beer, though. The Campaign for Real Ale, CAMRA, now also campaigns to promote traditional cider and perry (pear cider).

Finally, if you like something with a little more kick, organic whisky, gin, rum and port are becoming more widely available. As always, you do have a choice and control over what you choose to put in your body.

While the notion of an ‘eco-party' may sound a bit dry and worthy, there are good reasons at least to try not to have your holiday bash turn into a chemical cosh. Here's wishing you all a happy - and healthy - holiday season.

Hungover but healthy

The Organic Wine Company

Organics Direct
Organic Champagne
Sedlescombe Organic Vineyard

Pennard Organic Wine and Cider

Campaign for Real Ale

This article first appeared in the Ecologist in December/January08

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