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Powdered alcohol, seriously? A health risk we don’t need

Opening a bottle and pouring liquid into a glass isn’t exactly an arduous task but a US company hopes to release a powdered variety to make consuming alcohol that little bit easier – and more portable…

Consumers can very quickly ingest risky levels of alcohol. jordache/Flickr

Opening a bottle and pouring liquid into a glass isn’t exactly an arduous task but a US company hopes to release a powdered variety to make consuming alcohol that little bit easier – and more portable.

Earlier this month, the company Palcohol gained regulatory approval to market powdered alcohol in the United States. The approval was subsequently rescinded because of a labelling discrepancy, but Palcohol has corrected the labels and reapplied, hoping the product will be on the market by September.

With flavours such as cosmopolitan and lemon drop, the product is clearly targeted towards the alcopops market. But there are a number of obvious and hidden dangers that need to be considered before a product such as this should be made available in Australia.

What is powdered alcohol?

Drinking alcohol, or ethanol, is a highly volatile compound that boils under normal conditions at around 78 degrees Celsius; a lower temperature than water. As such, in its natural state, it’s impossible to produce in a powdered form. A solid form can be made only by freezing at minus 114 degrees but this turns back into a liquid as soon as you raise the temperature.

Instead, powdered alcohol is made using host-guest chemistry and a method for its production is described in several patents from the 1970s. It’s not clear what method Palcohol uses, but it’s likely to trap the alcohol inside of a circular molecule called a cyclodextrin.

The structure of alpha-cyclodextrin. The cavity in the centre of the molecule is good for storing and releasing alcohol Nial Wheate

Cyclodextrins have a shape similar to an ice cream cone where the bottom half has been bitten off. The cavity inside the cyclodextrin is perfect for storing small molecules.

Cyclodextrins are used routinely in both medical products – such as the drug alprostadil, which is used to treat erectile dysfunction and ziprasidone, used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder – and in household items like the odour-reducing spray Febreeze. In the past, my research group has even examined cyclodextrins as potential delivery vehicles for anticancer drugs.

When the alcohol is trapped in the cyclodextrin, it doesn’t evaporate and together, they can be turned into a stable powder.

Misuse

The product could be used in a number of ways other than the intended just-add-water preparation, such as snorting the dry powder into the nose. Many compounds can be absorbed into the body from nasal tissue, such as antihistamine sprays to treat hay fever. Snorted alcohol has the potential to deliver alcohol to the brain without it having needing to go into systemic circulation in the blood stream.

We don’t know what the real risk of using alcohol in this way would be, as the research hasn’t been undertaken, but as a worse-case scenario the alcohol may significantly impair judgement and motor skills at levels far below those which normally give this effect.

In addition, snorting of any powders into the nasal cavity can cause severe irritation of the tissue leading to inflammation and bleeding.

One way for the company to address the misuse of their product in this way could be the inclusion of a bulking agent so that, gram per gram, each packet contains significantly less alcohol.

Overindulgence

The effects of alcohol and the damage it does to the body are well known, and the Australian government still advises that there is no amount of alcohol that is safe for everyone. The national guidelines, however, recommend women and men generally consume no more than two standard drinks per day to reduce their risk of alcohol-related disease, and no more than four drinks on a single occasion to minimise the risk of injury.

Despite years of advertising, education and the standard drinks guide, many adults are still unaware of how much alcohol is in different types of drinks like beer (3-10%), wine (8-15%) and spirits (15-40%) and therefore it can be easy for a person to drink more than they intended.

There’s no amount of alcohol that’s safe for everyone. Jason Scragz/Flickr, CC BY

Given the ease with which powdered alcohol can be consumed compared with normal drinking volumes, consumers can very quickly ingest risky levels of alcohol. From the patents, the powdered alcohols contain anywhere between 30 to 60% ethanol. A 50 gram packet (half the size of a sherbert Wizz Fizz pack), could contain as much as 30 grams of ethanol; that’s almost twice the alcohol content in a stubby or can of beer.

Safety of ingredients

Cyclodextrins are approved for human use and are generally regarded as safe, although one size of the molecule, called beta-cyclodextrin, is known to cause kidney damage when it is injected into the blood stream.

More worrying is the possibility of powdered alcohol to be adulterated if bought over the internet. Such sellers may add prescription drugs – as was the case with this energy drink – or other unlisted ingredients to give their product an extra kick. These additives may pose serious dangers such as allergic reactions and overdoses.

Taking all of these potential dangers into consideration, the approval of any form of powdered alcohol in Australia needs to be considered very carefully before it is allowed for sale.

Further reading:

Powdered alcohol will appeal to young drinkers, despite what the makers say

Powdered alcohol and space diapers have something in common

Join the conversation

18 Comments sorted by

  1. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    'Despite years of advertising, education and the standard drinks guide, many adults are still unaware of how much alcohol is in different types of drinks like beer (3-10%), wine (8-15%) and spirits (15-40%) and therefore it can be easy for a person to drink more than they intended.'

    If that's an argument for prohibiting the new product - people can't be trusted to monitor their own behaviour - it seems to be an argument for prohibiting alcoholic drinks as well.

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    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to James Jenkin

      Having watched a show like "What Happens In Kavos", (albeit a British show), it is obvious that many young folk use alcohol indiscriminately and solely for the purpose of getting paralytic.

      It is an education to watch the moronic behaviour of youth.
      Schoolies week in Qld would be a comparison, although compared to the Kavos situation, schoolies here are amateurs.

      And in regard to alcohol in general, it is sad to note that alcohol/drug problems touch so many families. My own family and so many friends and acquaintances have family members affected alcoholism. I can only assume it is rampant.

      Now wonder social problems like violence are so ubiquitous.

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    2. Mike Cowley

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      You mean the kind of drinking that has been going on for millennia, and the kind of violence that appears to be declining?

      I don't mean to belittle the experience of anyone affected by alcohol abuse or violence, but cranky old people have also been despairing at the "moronic behaviour of youth" for millennia and we seem to be doing better all the time.

      http://www.amazon.com/The-Better-Angels-Our-Nature/dp/0143122010

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    3. Doug Hutcheson

      Poet

      In reply to James Jenkin

      James, "it seems to be an argument for prohibiting alcoholic drinks as well" - which would be a Good Thing (tm), considering there is no safe level of consumption. I am yet to see the social good done by consuming alcohol. Does it cure any disease, or calm violent people, or improve conversation? It has certainly never made me a better person in any measurable way, but it sure has caused plenty of headaches!

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    4. Mike Cowley

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Doug Hutcheson

      "no safe level of consumption"

      Even if the real risks of an occasional wine at dinner were objectively measurable (they are not), this is a rather ridiculous standard to judge anything by. Almost everything in life has some measure of risk associated with it.

      By the same standard, there is no safe level of exposure to ionising radiation. However, the rocks all around us contain some level of radiation, and it's higher in places like Stanthorpe (a very beautiful part of Queensland, for those…

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    5. Doug Hutcheson

      Poet

      In reply to Mike Cowley

      Mike, the point is that alcohol, like nicotine, is an avoidable health and social risk. When one tries to justify our use of alcohol, there are precious few purposes to which it can be put that actually enhance the human condition. One such use is as a sterilising agent; another was its use in torpedoes during WWII (I don't know whether it is still used that way and it is stretching the point to say this use was enhancing our species, especially as inventive sailors worked out ways of draining the…

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    6. Mike Cowley

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Doug Hutcheson

      Well, there's a difference between thinking the world would be better off without alcohol and advocating it's prohibition - which you did claim would be a Good Thing. Prohibition has been tried before, and it didn't work out well.

      But to your larger point - there is a reason that people like alcohol, and have been liking alcohol for millennia. It makes you feel good. It helps you forget about the problems in your life, and acts as a social lubricant. Not everyone feels this way or enjoys the benefits…

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  2. Kay Dunkley

    logged in via Facebook

    We simply do not need this product. There are plenty of options available now for social drinking in moderation. There would seem to be little purpose for powdered alcohol except inappropriate use.

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    1. Mike Cowley

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Kay Dunkley

      The inventor is a camping enthusiast and says he wanted to develop a dehydrated product that can be reconstituted in the same way as dehydrated food products. This is a perfectly legitimate use in a situation where the volume and weight of food and drink is relevant.

      He has also announced that there will be a bulking agent to address concerns about snorting or concentration of the reconstituted product, and that the packaging will contain a standard drink, which if anything will make it easier for people to judge their intake.

      It's not like there aren't plenty of ways to abuse alcohol already, without getting all excited about a slightly different form.

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    2. James Jenkin

      EFL Teacher Trainer

      In reply to Mike Cowley

      Interesting background Ken.

      But I don't know if a select group of people should decide what other people 'need' or not. It's up to normal people whether they buy something and find a use for it. If they don't have a need for it, the product fails.

      Otherewise our betters could start saying there's no 'need' for potato chips or video games or snowboards, and they should be withdrawn from sale.

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  3. Caterina Schulz

    logged in via Facebook

    Surely powdered alcohol is the most cretinous invention in our devolution!

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  4. Paul Miller

    logged in via LinkedIn

    This sort of product would appear to have some huge benefits.

    The current transportation costs involved in conveying alcohol in its liquid form and losses arising from damage to crates of glass bottles etc are huge.

    How much more sensible and cost effective would it be to powderise the alcohol at its base of manufacture, transport it in its powdered form, and then have it reconstituted at its destination.

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    1. Sebastian Poeckes

      Retired

      In reply to Paul Miller

      I can imagine that weight-conscious bush walkers would be lining up to buy this product.

      So long as the flavours aren't too sick-making it might readily supplant Stones-Mac and the old favorite, port.

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    2. Mike Cowley

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Sebastian Poeckes

      I certainly hope to, but the flavours might indeed be a problem - I can't imagine the complex flavours of a decent single-malt will rehydrate very well.

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    3. Paul Miller

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Mike Cowley

      I imagine, unless the technology is at a surprisingly advanced level, that what we will get will be a simple 'generic' vodka, whisky, gin, rum etc. The type of spirit where its consumption is most typically associated with a flavoured mixer as well as the existing RTD market.

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  5. Rory Cunningham

    Test Analyst

    Obvoiusly it was going to be used in other ways, such as snorting (stupid idea) and of course smuggling it into places it shouldn't be

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  6. Gordon Angus Mackinlay

    Clinical Psychologist

    Whilst serving with the United Nations in the peacekeeping force UNFIL in Lebanon in 1984, I was introduced to the dehydrated wine that was in the French Army 24 hour ration pack.

    Depending upon the pack it was red, white. Both chemical though were a white powder the consistency of certain illicit drugs.

    It could have been the water, but, no water what you did with it - it was truly awful. According to the soldiers the only way was to mix it with a orange drink crystals, a lots of sugar and pour it down your throat very rapidly.

    One soldier told me that he could only drink it if it mixed with water that had been treated with chlorine!!!

    The Irish army battalion's soldiers loved it, they mixed it with mentholated spirit after it had been filtered through a loaf of bread - the mind boggles.

    The only use I found for it was to put it down where the red ants were and they vanished quick smart! Drunk or dead I know not. Yours, Mackinlay

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  7. Anne Sutton

    Shop Lady

    I was in NSW in 2002 at a birthday gathering for a family friend. Some of the young adults had powdered alcohol in sachets that had been purchased somewhere in the town.

    It may be a different brand or method, but powdered alcohol is not a new product and it has been sold in Australia before. I did not try it, I sniffed the substance and decided against sampling it.

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