The next generation of non-alcoholic drinks are here, and they promise to end hangovers, revolutionise drinking culture and save lives.
Head pounding, skin clammy, thoughts cloudy: if any experience could emulate the feeling of being stuffed with steel wool, a hangover would be it.
It’s not a surprise that hangovers are so uniquely unpleasant. Alcohol is literally a poison, one that, according to the World Health Organisation, is behind three million deaths each year.
Pick an organ and you can guarantee it’s vulnerable to alcohol to some degree, and that’s without mentioning the level of humiliation a drunken phone call can cause.
With so many drawbacks, it says a lot about alcohol’s relaxing power that it remains the second most popular non-pharmaceutical drug in Britain behind caffeine. But is that worth the compendium of health complications it packs?
Not according to David Nutt and David Orren, co-founders of The Social Drinks Company. The men share a vision of a brighter future, one where social ease needn’t come at the cost of one’s liver, nor one’s dignity.
Their first commercially available drink, Sentia, is a plant-based alcohol alternative that comes in a classy glass bottle. Despite containing no alcohol, it promises to deliver the feeling of being two drinks deep, but not a sip more. It’s an experience that they say “hits your sweet spot, without hitting you with a hangover”.
The Sun called it part of a “new breed of functional alternatives to alcohol”, while a reporter for Business Insider said it made them feel “light, floozy, like after a yoga class”. Time, less glowingly, questioned the purported lack of dangers involved, whereas the Evening Standard team bitingly remarked on its flavour, saying, “few go into a bar and wonder if they’ve anything with hints of Calpol.”
There’s certainly potential in this new species of anti-alcohol, but does Sentia have what it takes to revolutionise the drinks industry?
The “loudly sober” superweapon
Ronnie ‘Tee’ Traynor exemplifies someone who benefits from the promise of Sentia. An ex-band manager who lived and breathed the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, she now runs alcohol-free social club The Sobar Social and advocates for a “loudly sober” lifestyle.
“I gave up drinking about five-and-a-half years ago. I had a complicated relationship with it over the years, and then I got to the point where I wasn’t a daily drinker but a binge drinker … I got to the point where I just felt a little bit like I was anxious; I wasn’t enjoying it any more,” she said.
Fed up with living in the clutches of alcohol, she decided to stop drinking for three months: “I’d never managed even to do Dry January. It felt like walking up Ben Nevis in flip-flops; it felt so big. But I did it, and at the end of the three months, I thought ‘you know what, I feel great, and I think this might be the kind of lifestyle change that I’ve been looking for’.”
After sampling Sentia at an alcohol-free festival, Traynor became a convert. Despite initially feeling tired and unsociable, she said the drink made her “scoot around”, having “lots of chats” with the other attendees.
Since then, she’s become a loyal Sentia customer, hosting non-alcoholic pop-up bars with the drink as the centrepiece and convincing her local pubs and bars to stock it.
The lifestyle change has seen her reflect on our unhealthy habits around drinking. “We all love the odd chocolate every now and then or pack of crisps. But we don’t want to have 20 packs a night or two boxes of chocolates, but that’s kind of what our relationship to alcohol has been. It’s quite gluttonous,” she said.
“It’s only natural that once we’ve given up gluten and everyone’s giving this up or is allergic to that, that alcohol would come under the spotlight.”
High demand for low-alcohol
Traynor isn’t the only one turning to healthier alternatives to alcohol. According to drinks market analysis group IWSR, the no- and low-alcohol drinks market grew 8% in 2022, compared to just 1% for traditional alcohol. This explosion in interest is rippling throughout the industry, with the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) reporting that 85% of UK pubs now serve at least one alcohol-free option.
There’s no single type of consumer opting for these alternatives, either. Bar staff around London reported seeing all manner of customers sipping on the growing selection of alcohol-free beverages.
Kelly, a bartender in Camberwell, talked me through some typical alcohol-free customers: “we have a football team that comes in on a Saturday … they want something to quench their thirst … [but] some of them have got work in the morning,” she said. “Often people drink alone. They come in, get their drink or just watch the telly or something.”
Rebecca, another bartender, noted a recent change with this year’s Dry January cohort: “In January we absolutely sold out of alcohol-free, but [this year] we kept selling so much throughout February and March.”
With alcohol-free beverages in such high demand, the market is primed for a product like Sentia. Still, the question remains: how does it work?
The science of Sentia
The idea of Sentia relies upon a neurotransmitter called gamma aminobutyric acid, known as GABA.
“GABA is nature’s stress response mechanism. It’s a signalling mechanism that lets the rest of your neuroreceptors know that you’re under stress and you should adapt and adjust,” David Orren told me.
As Orren describes it, when you’ve just escaped a burning building, it’s the GABA response that helps lower your heart rate, regulate your breathing and lift that stressful ‘weight’ off your chest. Picture that same response taking place when you’re not actively in fight-or-flight mode, and it’s not hard to see how it would result in relaxation and a mild sense of euphoria.
Apparently, there’s also a social side to the GABA response. “What happens when GABA is activated is that you become relaxed in a social environment. You open up; you become a social being,” Orren said.
Alcohol does stimulate the GABA response, too; it’s just that it does so without safeguards. As Orren explained, “alcohol overwhelms pretty much all neuroreceptors until eventually it tells you to stop breathing, effectively die.”
It’s in this lack of moderation that the dopamine hit of alcohol leads to worsening addiction. Without ethanol, Sentia bypasses this unsustainable surge of neurochemicals, as well as the physical ramifications of essentially poisoning oneself. In the short-term, that means no hangovers. In the long-term, it means fewer health complications, no addiction and a far reduced risk of premature death.
If the reality lives up to the promise, GABA-based drinks like Sentia are nothing short of miraculous. In the context of curbing addiction, alcohol could finally have its methadone. For teetotallers, there could soon be a readily-available alcohol-free option that doesn’t feel as infantilising as coke or orange juice.
However, not everyone is ready to join the Sentia party.
The blood-brain problem
Orren described Sentia working by “allowing the absorption [of GABA] to happen early in the gut wall and then into the blood”.
But for a foodstuff to deliver neurochemicals to your brain, it must pass something that scientists call the blood-brain barrier (BBB). Ethanol does this with ease, as does caffeine. GABA-based drugs like benzodiazepines can also pass it, but some argue that doesn’t explain how a non-drug like Sentia can.
Roy de Kleijn is Assistant Professor in the Cognitive Psychology department at Leiden University. In 2015, he co-authored a research paper collating studies on GABA’s ability to cross the BBB. The results were inconclusive, but as Kleijn explained, the pro-GABA case was mired in conflicting interests: “So, the [pro-GABA] studies that we cite: the authors associated with these studies, they actually work for these kinds of companies.”
A third cited paper, this one advocating for GABA-infused drinks, features six authors from either Pharma Foods or Coca-Cola: the former is the parent company of PharmaGABA, and the latter once produced an ill-fated GABA-infused line of the established brand Fanta.
With none of these studies declaring any conflict of interest, and a fourth study being retracted by Nature due to its questionable use of data, an allegation the authors reject, these studies cast a shadow over the promises of GABA consumables like Sentia.
“So this is all on very shaky ground. There are no stable effects proven of administering GABA as a food supplement. We just don’t see any effects,” Kleijn said.
Kleijn also took issue with Sentia’s description of GABA as a “facilitator for human connection” that helps users “relax” and “build trust”.
“Nobody would describe GABA that way … we know that GABA is used against muscle spasms, for example, so there are effects for sure. But to really relate that to social beings in a harmonious society? I don’t believe that at all. That’s not what GABA is for,” he said.
However, like any good academic, Kleijn is eager to be proven wrong in his scepticism, something he said should be easy with a double-blind placebo-controlled study: “Give 40 people this Sentia stuff, give 40 people placebo stuff, put it in a liquid where they don’t taste the difference, and just see what happens … it’s kind of weird that they haven’t done that.”
Healing our relationship with drugs
David Nutt, David Orren and Sentia’s press team were all contacted for comment on Kleijn’s claims. Only Sentia’s press team responded, pointing to a 2022 research paper led by David Nutt, which discussed the development of functional safe alternatives to alcohol using either molecules already existing in nature or synthetic ones.
There is also no denying that each of the founders, particularly David Nutt, are personally invested in the business. Not only did Nutt create the organisation Drug Science, which is dedicated to cutting government and commercial interests from the shaping of drugs policy, but he’s also credited in more than 1,000 articles, studies and research papers on neuropsychology, drugs and addiction.
In 2009 Nutt showed he was prepared to stand up for his beliefs, and was sacked as the Government’s chief drug advisor for publishing a paper claiming that alcohol and tobacco were more dangerous than many illegal drugs.
With a number of books to his name, all challenging the status quo regarding drugs, it’s clear that Nutt and his colleagues are not out to make a quick buck: Sentia is a continuation of his life’s work to heal society’s relationship with drugs.
Sentia has the backing of some very reputable names and organisations, and customers genuinely believe in its promise. Despite some questions over how it works, there are simply too many people waving its flag to disregard it entirely.
So, keep an eye on the spirits shelf of your local bar. There could soon be something fresh, botanical and alcohol-free wedged between the Grey Goose and Captain Morgan’s.
Featured image by Sentia Spirits via Facebook