Toolkit for Assessing the Unrecorded Alcohol Market

What is the composition and safety of unrecorded products?

AMPHORA Guidelines for Chemical Testing of Unrecorded Alcohol

Chemical analysis procedures may be used to:

  • determine and describe the composition of unrecorded alcohol products;
  • test the authenticity of beverages based on chemical profiles;
  • identify individual problematic substances;
  • identify categories of unrecorded beverages with problematic chemical profiles; and
  • identify particular locations, regions, or countries with unrecorded alcohol products that pose a health risk.

The most comprehensive methodology for testing the chemical composition of unrecorded alcohol products was developed as part of the Alcohol Measures for Public Health Research Alliance (AMPHORA) project, a collaboration among 13 EU member states funded by the European Commission. This methodology has been fully described by others (e.g., Lachenmeier et al., 2010) and provides a model protocol for evaluating the ethanol content and safety of unrecorded alcohol products. This approach ― which involves (1) the identification of potentially harmful substances likely to be encountered in the region, (2) the sampling of unrecorded alcohol products, and (3) analysis ― is summarized below.

The identification of potentially relevant contaminants should focus on substances that are most likely to present a health risk in the country or region of interest. In addition to reviewing substances regularly tested for in recorded alcohol beverages, a literature search for papers with information on the chemical composition of unrecorded alcohol and/or toxicological results from individuals in the geographic area of interest, as well as toxicological evaluation of unrecorded alcohol found in the geographic area of interest, will provide information on other potential substances to test for.

The AMPHORA methodology suggests testing for:

  • ethanol content;
  • methanol and higher alcohols;
  • esters;
  • ethyl carbamate;
  • diethyl phthalate;
  • heavy metals;
  • flavorings and food additives (when relevant); and
  • water quality.

A minimum volume of 100ml per sample is required, but a sample volume of 300ml or more is ideal to allow for a fuller range of chemical analysis. Chemical analysis procedures and quality assurance principles should follow the International Organization for Standardization 17025 (ISO, 2005). A full testing list and the maximum limits adopted by the AMPHORA project are provided in Annex: AMPHORA Testing Limits. Specific protocols for analyzing each substance can be found in the publicly available AMPHORA guidelines. Researchers may also want to set their own maximum limits or limits for additional substances not included in the AMPHORA methodology. However, this should only be done by individuals with the required expertise.

There are two main limitations of chemical testing to determine the composition and safety of unrecorded products. First, collecting and testing samples is prohibitively expensive for most study budgets. Second, the samples collected necessarily make up a convenience sample and, as such, cannot be expected to be representative of all unrecorded products in a given market.