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Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Pregnant women drinking non-alcoholic and low-alcohol beverages may be putting their babies at risk because some brands contain more alcohol than is advertised on the label, according to a study released today by the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.

The researchers bought 45 different beverages claiming to contain no alcohol or have low alcohol content (less than 0.5 per cent) from grocers in the greater Toronto area. They bought the drinks in threes from different lot numbers (when available). They then tested the beverages for ethanol concentration using a process called gas chromatography.

The analysis revealed that 13 beverages contained ethanol levels that were higher than those stated on their labels. In three cases, ethanol levels of nearly 2 per cent were recorded in beverages advertised as non-alcoholic.

"I think there's a big issue with misleading the public about alcohol," said Gideon Koren, one of the study's authors, who works with the Motherisk program in the hospital's clinical pharmacology and toxicology division.

Scores of non- or low-alcoholic wines, de-alcoholized beers and coolers are available from grocers in Canada.

"This is what we purchased at corner stores, the way a Canadian would purchase," said Dr. Koren, who holds the Research Leadership for Better Pharmacotherapy during Pregnancy and Lactation at the Hospital for Sick Children.

The researchers are concerned about pregnant mothers who consume the beverages in "large volumes."

"Pregnant women seeking replacement for alcoholic beverages may be misled by these labels, unknowingly exposing themselves and their unborn babies to ethanol," they write.

Ethanol can damage the developing embryo and fetus, but doctors remain divided over whether small amounts can harm an unborn child.

"The problem for all of us is that alcohol is bad for the fetus but we do not know how little causes harm. It could be that even low amounts could be problematic," Dr. Koren said.

Canada's Public Health Agency advises pregnant women to abstain from alcohol: "No one knows for sure how much drinking causes [fetal alcohol spectrum disorder] That means that there is no safe amount of alcohol you can drink while you are pregnant," reads the Agency's website.

Still, some moms-to-be find it difficult to stop drinking and use a plethora of non-alcoholic and low-alcohol wines, coolers and beers as a substitute, the authors say.

Dr. Koren said part of the problem lies in the fact that many of the products are "quenchers" - soft-drink-type coolers that are easy to throw back in quantity.

"When we drink wine, we sip - it's not a thirst quencher. Here, people might drink very differently."

He added that the mislabelling can be "problematic at many levels."

"We're talking pregnant women, but how about the driver? You don't need to be legally drunk to be a risk on the road."

The researchers are agitating for the beverage makers and regulatory agencies to take a closer look at the drinks.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency enforces packaging and labelling laws and is responsible for verifying that the information provided to consumers is truthful. According to the federal Guide to Food Labelling and Advertising, a beverage containing 1.1 per cent or more alcohol by volume is considered alcoholic.

"Mislabelled products are a concern," said Julie Lepage, media relations for the agency, but would not confirm that CFIA would investigate the products in question.

The authors surmise that a potential contributor to the alcohol detected in the beverages may be "the degradation of fruit."

"However," they continue, "manufacturers of the beverages should be aware that alcohol is generated through the degradation process and have mechanisms to monitor and ensure that ethanol remains below the limit stated on their labels."

Brands that tested within advertised alcohol levels include Carl Jung, Casal Domingo, Labatt Nordic Low and Molson EXEL.