Alcoholic Beverages are Foods

Both custom and food law in the Western world recognize four categories of object as food:

  1. 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;
  2. water and other drink;
  3. chewing gum;
  4. 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, 11and 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.

References

  • 1. Word IQ Encyclopedia (food entry)
    • According to the U.S. Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, ch. II, Sec. 201 (321) (f), “The term ''food'' means (1) articles used for food or drink for man or other animals, (2) chewing gum, and (3) articles used for components of any such article.”
    • According to the EU Regulation (EC) No 178/2002 “’food’ (or ‘foodstuff‘) means any substance or product, whether processed, partially processed or unprocessed, intended to be, or reasonably expected to be ingested by humans. ‘Food’ includes drink, chewing gum and any substance, including water, intentionally incorporated into the food during its manufacture, preparation or treatment.”
    • According to he U.K. Food Safety Act 1990 (c. 16), Part I, ”’food’ includes—
      (a) drink;
      (b) articles and substances of no nutritional value which are used for human consumption;
      (c) chewing gum and other products of a like nature and use; and
      (d) articles and substances used as ingredients in the preparation of food or anything falling within this subsection.”
  • 2. For example, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) insisted that "Alcohol is not a food or drink." However, the Committee of Fifty, a group of scientists asked to study the “liquor problem,“ examined the best available scientific evidence and concluded that alcohol is food. It is physiologically processed and treated by the body as food. Billings, John S., et al. (for the Committee of Fifty for the Investigation of the Liquor Problem). Physiological Aspects of the Liquor Problem. Boston & NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1903.
  • 3. For example, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) insisted that “Medical writers, without exception, class alcohol as a poison.” The scientists of the Committee of Fifty for the Investigation of the Liquor Problem concluded that this was an erroneous assertion. Billings, John S., et al. (for the Committee of fifty for the Investigation of the Liquor Problem). Physiological Aspects of the Liquor Problem. Boston & NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1903.
  • 4. Ford, Gene. The Benefits of Moderate Drinking: Alcohol, Health, and Society. San Francisco, CA: Wine Appreciation Guild, 1988, p. 176.
  • 5. Ford, Gene. The Benefits of Moderate Drinking: Alcohol, Health, and Society. San Francisco, CA: Wine Appreciation Guild, 1988, p. 176
  • 6. Hanson, David J. Preventing Alcohol Abuse: Alcohol, Culture, and Control. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995, p. 80.
  • 7. Modell, Walter. Mass drug catastrophes and the roles of science and technology. Science, 1967, 156, 346-351.
  • 8. DeJong, William. What’s in a name? Let me count the ways. Prevention File, 2004, 18(2), 2-5.
  • 9. Maine State Department of Education. Leadership in Maine. (Poster) Augusta, ME: Maine State Department of Education, n.d.
  • 10. Morton, M.B. Criteria for the Development or Selection of Drug Prevention Curricula. Atlanta, GA: Southeast Regional Center for Drug-Free Schools and Communities, 1990. p. 6.
  • 11. Mielke, D., and Holstedt, P. Oregon Alcohol and Drug Prevention Education (ADADE) Infused Lesson Guide, K12. Salem, OR: Oregon Department of Education and Eastern Oregon State College, 1991, p. 472.
  • 12. Georgia Department of Education. Quality Core Curriculum, Health and Safety, K-12. Atlanta, GA: Georgia department of Education, n.d., p. 12.
  • 13. New York State Division of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse. Do You Use Drugs? (Poster) Albany, NY: New York State Division of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, n.d. (a).
  • 14. New York State Division of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse. Don’t be Fooled (Poster) Albany, NY: New York State Division of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, n.d. (b).
  • 15. Rose, Peter. If it feels good, it must be bad. Fortune, 1991, 122, 91-92, 96, 100, 104, and 108, p. 104.
  • 16. Hanson, David J. Preventing Alcohol Abuse: Alcohol, Culture and Control. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995, p. 82.