Controversy Erupts Over Rejection of Powdered Alcohol in U.S.
April 22, 2014 9:46 PM
Alcohol powders have been a long time coming to the U.S. market, but still have yet to arrive in physical form
For about a week it appeared as if the
U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau
(TTB) would approve
. Now the branch of the
U.S. Department of the Treasury
has ignited controversy after it rejected
the alcohol product
I. Powdered Alcohol -- Promise or Hollow Hype?
What is "palcohol"? Palcohol is short for "powdered alcohol".
The idea isn't all that new -- since the 1970s food chemists have been toying with ways to mount
the intoxicating part of alcohol
(ethanol) on (seemingly) dried carbohydrate powders that give the flavor of popular liquors and mixed drinks. At this point the chemists in the crowd are likely frowning. Yes, alcohol has a very low heat of vaporization, so if it weren't for some chemical trickery it would likely evaporate.
So how do you keep the ethanol from vanishing into thin air? According to Sam Bompas, a food chemist and cofounder of
Bompas & Parr
, the trick lies in microencapsulation. In an interview with
The alcohol molecules themselves will still be liquid, they are just enrobed in a microscopic shell... this typically involves enrobing the liquid in fat molecules that can be dissolved in solution or through physical abrasion (it's a process used to give longer flavor release in chewing gum).
In more precise chemistry terms, virtually all known alcohol powder formulations rely on absorption via cyclic dextrins -- large ring molecules of sugar. Cyclic dextrins are capable of absorbing up to 60 percent of their weight in ethanol, and -- critically -- are safe to eat.
Common cyclodextrins -- the foundation of alcohol powders [Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]
The father of the alcoholic drink powder was Jinichi Sato, who in 1954 founded Sato Food Industries Comp., Ltd. (
). Mr. Jinichi’s focus was initially to develop flavorings. But while experimenting in 1969 he discovered a way to trap alcohol in a powder of lactose anhydride.
The results were imperfect. The alcohol content wasn't very high. And when re-solvated in water, the result was a viscous gel-like paste, not ideal for drinking.
II. Finally! Powdered Alcohol
Inspired by Mr. Jinichi's work, food chemists and experimenters in the U.S. raced to develop similar technology. General Food Corp. chemists, for example filed a
1974 U.S. patent
on dextrose-alcohol microballs by (General Foods was later merged into the Kraft Foods Group Inc. (
)). These technologies generally produced the aforementioned microparticles, but unlike modern nanotechnology, they relied on crude methods to produce such encapsulation. But the processes proved prohibitively expensive and too inconsistent for human consumption.
Mr. Jinichi's was able to solve the viscosity issues of his own formulation and
launched an alcohol powder for sale in Japan, following a revision to the nation's liquor laws. The product was revolutionary, but not as impactful as one might expect. In recent years Sato Food Industries has been more focused on tea extraction, although it continues to market powdered alcohol in Japan and other regions.
Sato Food Industries' product creates a brandy-like concoction that is roughly 12 percent alcohol by volume. A serving is about 31 grams, and produces a roughly 3.5 oz. (100 ml or cc, to be precise) spirit. For comparison that's about the same amount of powder (by weight) as is in one giant Pixy Stick or as much powder as in four packets of Emergen*C.
In many areas, Sato and its rivals' patents on alcohol powders have begun to expire, meaning that the market is now open to new entrants.
In Germany, a company is manufacturing
a powder called "subyou"
, which retails for $2-3 USD per serving. Just next-door in the Netherlands a group of five students of
the Helicon Vocational Institute
(Helicon Opleidingen NHB Deurne) developed a powder called Booz2Go, proceeding to ignite controversy after suggesting that it should be made available to children as it was not a traditional alcoholic drink.
But for all this powdered alcohol ...er... floating around, none was available in the U.S.
III. Palcohol Builds a Buzz
That seemed poised to change last week. A law blog focused on the beverage industry (generally focused on beverages of the alcoholic variety) --
-- unearthed an approval of a powdered alcohol product dubbed "palcohol".
As BevLaw.com points out, most states lack policies about powdered alcohols, given that there are no such products currently authorized for sale in the U.S. An exception is California whose
covers such products.
Word of the approval of palcohol quickly spread.
Palcohol, its manufacturer Tempe, Ariz.-based Lipsmark LLC and the man behind it -- Mark Phillips (an author and broadcaster who was known for promoting wine to new audiences) – were quickly put in the spotlight. Some of palcohol's statements raised eyebrows, including:
What’s worse than going to a concert, sporting event, etc. and having to pay $10, $15, $20 for a mixed drink with tax and tip. Are you kidding me?! Take Palcohol into the venue and enjoy a mixed drink for a fraction of the cost.
...and (via BevLaw.com)...
We’ve been talking about drinks so far. But we have found adding Palcohol to food is so much fun. Sprinkle Palcohol on almost any dish and give it an extra kick. Some of our favorites are the Kamikaze in guacamole, Rum on a BBQ sandwich, Cosmo on a salad and Vodka on eggs in the morning to start your day off right. Experiment. Palcohol is great on so many foods. Remember, you have to add Palcohol AFTER a dish is cooked as the alcohol will burn off if you cook with it…and that defeats the whole purpose.
, the product also had the rather colorful disclaimer:
Let's talk about the elephant in the room….snorting Palcohol. Yes, you can snort it. And you'll get drunk almost instantly because the alcohol will be absorbed so quickly in your nose. Good idea? No. It will mess you up. Use Palcohol responsibly.
...which was later changed to:
Can I snort it? We have seen comments about goofballs wanting to snort it. Don't do it! It is not a responsible or smart way to use the product. To take precautions against this action, we've added volume to the powder so it would take more than a half of a cup of powder to get the equivalent of one drink up your nose. You would feel a lot of pain for very little gain. Just use it the right way.
Controversy aside, note the percent alcohol by weight -- 58 percent -- strongly hints at the traditional chemistry (cyclodextrin, which can absorb up to 60 percent by weight). So while it might be a bit risqué marketing wise, in terms of chemistry, palcohol is likely sticking to well tread territory, albeit trailblazing in the U.S.
IV. ...But Leaves Us With a Hangover
So was a new age of powder alcohol dawning in the U.S.?
Not so fast. Before the public could get its hands on palcohol's various flavors -- Cosmopolitan, Mojito, and Lemon Drop (plus two others) -- the TTB announced that its approval was in error, due to mistakes on Lipsmark's label in terms of the amount of powder in various servings. The TTB offered no other explanation for the dramatic reversal.
Now the question becomes whether we're seeing a powder alcohol prohibition, or if it's just a bump in the road for a company that says it has been trying to get approval for its product for four straight years.
Powdered alcohol could create a headache for sporting venues that overcharge for their booze.
[Image Source: Yum Sugar]
Robert Lehrman, editor of BevLaw.com,
that the surprise rejection struck him as suspect. He remarks:
An oversight of this nature does not ring true to me.
He believes that likely the TTB is looking to buy time to allow states to prepare for the product, as many lack laws it. Federal law does not regulate the sale of alcohol, other than to forbid the sale of alcoholic beverages to those under 21 years of age. Given that alcohol is legal in the U.S. it seems unlikely that the TTB will be look to permanently keep palcohol and similar products off the market.
However, the surprise acceptance -- and then rejection -- does highlight the need for perhaps thought as a society and adjustment to this new form of
one of mankind's oldest and most beloved intoxicants
Powders, as Lipsmark's arena comment hints at, are much easier to disguise than beverages. While there's always the legal threat of imprisonment for those under 21, a trickier issue is how powdered alcohol might affect businesses with policies against outside drinks or complete bans on alcoholic beverages. In either case, the business likely has the means to kick unruly patrons out, but it'd be very difficult to enforce such rules.
In the future most of us will still likely get alcohol the old fashioned way -- by drinking it.
from a health perspective
palcohol probably won't be that much more dangerous and different than your standard alcoholic beverages sold as liquids, as it ultimately is consumed in liquid form as well. The same cannot be said for other forms of fad alcohol consumption such as
(via soaked tampons),
, or anal delivery (via alcoholic enemas or tampons).
Such extreme forms of consumption are inevitably uncommon, but deserve more serious concern given the medical dangers. In other words, palcohol may be a financial headache to sporting venues, but it's unlikely to be a killer buzz at fraternity parties -- unlike those alcoholic enemas.
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