Pregnant? Avoid all traces of alcohol - even 'non-alcoholic' drinks

Drinking any alcohol while pregnant could have lifelong consequences for unborn babies, experts say.

This comes as a new trend has emerged in the lucrative beverage market, where alcohol companies are creating "non-alcoholic" versions of their products, which actually do contain small amounts of alcohol.

“All types of alcohol are harmful ... Alcohol in a mother’s blood passes to the baby through the umbilical cord.

"Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can cause miscarriage, stillbirth and a range of lifelong physical, behavioural, and intellectual disabilities,” the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said.

The disabilities are known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) and children with them may have abnormal facial features, a small head, shorter-than-average height, low body weight, poor co-ordination, hyperactive behaviour, difficulty with attention, poor memory, learning disabilities, speech and language delays, intellectual disability, vision or hearing problems, as well as heart, kidney and bone problems.

Even low to moderate drinking can affect unborn babies. The CDC has been involved in studies and research on FASDs for decades and said there was no safe amount of alcohol to ingest during pregnancy.

“The baby’s brain is developing throughout pregnancy and can be affected by exposure to alcohol at any time,” it said.

Prof Ermos Nicolaou, academic head for Wits University’s maternal and fetal medicine unit, said it would be best for pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers to stay away from beverages that contain any alcohol at all.

According to South African legislation and the Liquor Products Act, in particular, it is legal to label a beverage “non-alcoholic” if it contains below 0.5% alcohol.  

Advertising Regulatory Board CEO Gail Schimmel told TimesLIVE that many drinks labelled “non-alcoholic” did, in fact, contain trace amounts of alcohol.

“There is a trend where alcohol companies are producing these non-alcoholic versions of their drinks. I have raised this with the Association for Alcohol Responsibility and Education (Aware) as an issue that we need to look at, and how to take it forward,” she said.

“With this trend, we need to find a way to protect consumers within the contexts of the current law. It’s something that we need to look at carefully.”