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Synthetic alcohol promises to make drinking safer?

Startups around the world are making beverages that promise to make you feel tipsy using the magic of plant extracts, not alcohol.

Our ancestors started drinking booze millions of years ago, and we never stopped.

Alcohol is embedded in nearly every culture in the world as a social lubricant, marker of taste and cornerstone of celebrations.

If companies tried to bring it to market for the first time today, however, US regulators would almost certainly forbid it.

More than 200 health conditions – from cancer to dementia to cirrhosis –  are linked to alcohol; it contributes to 3 million deaths globally each year, many via auto accidents and suicides; and in the US alone, more than 14 million people struggle with alcohol-use disorder.

It’s dangerous stuff, even though billions of people ingest it with hardly a second thought. But what if you could get the buzz of a good drink without the buzz-killing side effects?

Enter the startup companies who claim that after a botanical beverage, you’ll feel more sociable and relaxed without getting drunk, eliminating the hangover (and bad decisions) that sometimes follow a boozy night.

One such startup, the UK-based GABA Labs, launched its first product, an “active botanical spirit” called Sentia, earlier this year in Europe.

Sentia is made from plant extracts that can mimic the effects of alcohol, and is meant to top out around the feeling of having a glass or two of wine.

But its founders want to go even further: They have also created a (not-yet-for-sale) synthetic alcohol molecule that they say can be used to create dupes of any booze on the market, from beer to rum to champagne.

The company’s founders don’t yet have enough evidence to legally make claims about their products’ health effects, but the implication is clear: synthetic alcohol could capture the good parts of drinking while ditching the death and disease associated with it.

But experts aren’t convinced. Things that sound too good to be true usually are, says Dr Anna Lembke, medical director of addiction medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine and author of Dopamine Nation.

“There’s always the promise of some new molecule that’s going to do exactly what the old molecule did but not have the harmful effects,” she says. “Every single time, that has not panned out.”

Heroin, for example, was intended to be a safer form of morphine.  E-cigarettes were pitched as a less dangerous way to smoke. Neither has worked out as planned.

Can alcohol really be faked in a healthy way, or would a synthetic version introduce new risks? Is it possible to create a product that imitates alcohol without introducing the possibility of addiction or dependence? And could fake alcohol make people already struggling with alcohol-use disorder more likely to relapse?

“Given the significant harms caused when alcohol is misused, this is an interesting approach,” says Patricia Powell, deputy director of the US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). “However, it raises a series of questions that we don’t have the answers to yet.”

The Sentia experience

On a recent weeknight, I poured myself a glass of GABA Labs’ botanical product, Sentia. Mixed with seltzer water over ice, the burgundy liquid looked like a cocktail I might order at a pricey New York City bar. I tasted notes of rose and winter spices, followed by a slightly bitter aftertaste. (My boyfriend, helpfully, said it “tasted like plants”.)

Because it really did feel like a cocktail, I found myself behaving as though it were: taking slow, small sips and relaxing into the experience as I did. By the time I finished my drink, I felt mellow and a little fuzzy around the edges, as if I’d had half a glass of wine.

The effect wasn’t dramatic, but it did more or less deliver on Sentia’s promises. How?

The answer is in the name of GABA Labs, which was co-founded by David Nutt, a neuropsychopharmacologist who used to lead clinical science at the NIAAA. (He’s infamous for arguing, based on research he co-published, that alcohol is more dangerous to society than heroin or crack cocaine, and is a vocal proponent of expanding the use of psychedelics.)

Nutt formulated Sentia by mixing botanical compounds that could stimulate the activity of gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that produces calming signals in the brain.

Alcohol also mimics the effects of GABA, which is why after a glass of wine or beer, you might feel anxiety and stress subside. But if one glass turns into many, that feeling might tip over into loss of control, coherence and (eventually) consciousness.

Nutt wanted to avoid that risk with Sentia. “We don’t want to produce a massive stimulation,” Nutt says. “We’ve also worked to develop compounds which work relatively shortly, so they get in fast and get out fast.”

Sentia is not the only product of its kind on the market. Kin EuphoricsGhia and Psychedelic Water are three of several startups selling alcohol-free beverages that use plant compounds to create a slightly buzzy, relaxing sensation.

All three have trendy bragging rights: supermodel Bella Hadid is a partner in Kin Euphorics, Ghia was founded by an ex-Glossier executive and Psychedelic Water went viral on TikTok this year.

All told, non-alcoholic spirit sales in the US grew by almost 300% from 2016 to 2020, according to beverage-industry research firm IWSR….

TIME.com: Read the full article here

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