What is alcohol?

Alcohol (ethanol or ethyl alcohol) is the ingredient found in beer, wine and spirits that causes drunkenness.

Alcohol is formed when yeast ferments (breaks down without oxygen) the sugars in different food. For example, wine is made from the sugar in grapes, beer from the sugar in malted barley (a type of grain), cider from the sugar in apples, vodka from the sugar in potatoes, beets or other plants.1

Alcohol is classed as a ‘sedative hypnotic’ drug2, which means it acts to depress the central nervous system at high doses. At lower doses, alcohol can act as a stimulant,3 inducing feelings of euphoria and talkativeness, but drinking too much alcohol at one session can lead to drowsiness, respiratory depression (where breathing becomes slow, shallow or stops entirely), coma or even death.4,5,6

As well as its acute and potentially lethal sedative effect at high doses, alcohol has effects on every organ in the body and these effects depend on the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) over time.7

Find out what happens when you drink alcohol.


Energy (kilojoules and Calories) in alcoholic drinks

Alcoholic drinks can add more Calories to our daily diet than we realise.

It’s the alcohol itself that is the main source of energy (kilojoules or Calories), with each gram of alcohol containing 29 kilojoules or 7 Calories. This is more than protein or sugars/carbohydrates (17 kilojoules or 4 Calories per gram) but less than fat (37 kilojoules or 9 Calories per gram).

Other than providing kilojoules, alcoholic drinks have very few nutrients needed for health.

Kilojoule or Calorie information is not usually on alcoholic drink labels. This makes it hard to find out how many kilojoules are in drinks or to compare drinks. Unlike non-alcoholic drinks and packaged foods, alcoholic drinks are not required to be labelled with kilojoules or nutrient content information, unless a nutrient claim is made, such as ‘99% sugar free’.

As a general guide, the higher the percentage of alcohol, the more kilojoules there will be in a drink. Sweeter drinks or drinks that contain sweetened mixers, such as ready-to-drink spirits (RTDs), also have more kilojoules.