Alcoholic Beverages are Foods
by David J. Hanson, Ph.D.
Both custom and food law in the Western world recognize four categories of object as food:
- any substance or product, whether processed, partially processed or unprocessed, intended to be, or reasonably expected to be ingested by humans whether of nutritional value or not;
- water and other drink;
- chewing gum;
- articles and substances used as ingredients or components in the preparation of food. 1
Both culturally and legally alcohol is food. However, as long ago as the 1800s, temperance writers insisted that alcohol was not a food. 2 Instead, they described it as a poison that was dangerous to life and health. 3 That long tradition continues to this day. Efforts to stigmatize alcoholic beverages have actually become part of federal policy. A director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has asserted that “alcohol is the dirtiest drug we have. It permeates and damages al tissue. No other drug can cause the same degree of harm that it does. Not even marijuana, heroin or LSD, as dirty and dangerous as they are, (are as dangerous as alcoholic beverages).” 4
Similarly, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has directed all agencies under its direction to replace the phrase “substance abuse” with “alcohol and other drug abuse” 5 and the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP) has the same editorial mandate. In the same way, the phrase “alcohol and drugs” must now be “alcohol and other drugs.” 6
In referring to alcohol as a drug, temperance-oriented proponents are technically correct. Pharmacologically, "any substance that by its chemical nature alters structure or function in the living organism is a drug. . . . Pharmacological effects are exerted by foods, vitamins, hormones, microbial, metabolites, plants, snake venoms, stings, products of decay, air pollutants, pesticides, minerals, synthetic chemicals, virtually all foreign materials (very few are completely inert), and many materials normally in the body." 7
However, their intent appears to be to stigmatize alcohol by associating it with illicit drugs. As Dr. William DeJong, Director of the federally funded Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse emphasizes, “in modern usage, ‘drug’ has become shorthand for ‘illegal drug’ or ‘street drug.’ People still go to the ‘drug store,’ but they go there to buy ‘medications,’ not drugs.” 8
Stigmatizing alcohol is frequently accomplished by discussing alcohol in the same paragraph with crack cocaine and other illicit drugs. Often the effort is more direct. The Maine Department of Education states, "The term 'alcohol/drug' is used to emphasize that alcohol is a mind-altering drug needing equal consideration with all other mind-altering drugs," 9 the Florida Department of Education refers to alcohol as a harmful drug, 10 Oregon's Department states unequivocally that wine coolers are illegal drugs, 11 and Georgia's Department contends, without any qualification, that alcohol is harmful to the body. 12
A poster distributed by the New York State Division of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse poses in large upper-case letters the question "DO YOU USE DRUGS?" above a picture of a bottle of beer; at the bottom it asserts: "More people get into trouble with alcohol than any other drug. Beer contains alcohol." 13 Another poster by the agency warns in large letters above a bottle of wine cooler "Don't be fooled"; below it warns in large letters "This is a drug." 14 The effort to stigmatize alcohol is even used effectively by some politicians. Consequently, producers are increasingly finding it necessary to explain how alcoholic beverages differ from illicit drugs. 15
In stigmatizing alcohol, activists may inadvertently trivialize the use of illegal drugs and thereby encourage their use. Or, especially among younger students, they may create the false impression that parents who use alcohol in moderation are drug abusers whose good example they should reject. Thus, their misguided effort to equate alcohol with illicit drugs is likely to be counterproductive. 16
But by denying that alcoholic beverages are foods and equating them with illegal drugs, temperance activists can more easily restrict their sale and prevent them from being sold along with other foods not only in grocery stores but also in restaurants. That seems to be more important to them.