This is an interesting topic, and one that I think would benefit from further discussion. Some people consider that alcohol-free wines and beers helped them immensely to quit drinking, others avoid them as completely as they do the full alcohol versions. There are a few points to make.
The first point to make is that many alcohol-free beers and wines aren’t alcohol-free at all. In the US a beer can be classed as ‘alcohol-free’ if it has 0.5% or less alcohol in it. In the UK it is 0.05%. This causes two issues.
The first is the slippery slope point. If you have a genuinely alcohol-free beer, then why not have a 0.05% one, then a 0.5% one? There are also low alcohol varieties (circa 2%). So where do you draw the line? Aren’t you just back on the same slippery slope you were on when you last decided you could moderate and have the odd drink every now and then?
Secondly, there is a physiological issue. Alcohol withdrawal is when your brain reacts to the depressive effects of the alcohol, in essence, it becomes hypersensitive so that it can still function whilst under the sedating effects of the alcohol. When the alcohol wears off you are left overly sensitive, which leads to anxiety, insomnia and, in more extreme cases, shaking and depression. When you take your first drink of the day this will cause a spike in the alcohol level in your bloodstream. This is the trigger to your brain to start the recalibration process and become more sensitive, and it will recalibrate to the amount you usually drink.
So if you usually drink two glasses of wine in an evening, that first spike in your blood alcohol level causes your brain to start recalibrating for the amount of alcohol in 2 glasses of wine. If you usually drink 2 bottles of spirits, then this first drink and the resulting spike in blood alcohol will cause your brain to start recalibrating for the alcohol in two bottles of spirits. This is why it is incredibly hard to moderate or reduce your alcohol intake, and so phenomenally easy to increase it. The withdrawal is decidedly unpleasant and the natural tendency is to relieve it and not suffer it. So when you take that first drink, you are in essence committing to having to drink at least your usual amount, if not more.
So when we quit drinking we need to avoid anything that causes a jump in our blood alcohol content that is pronounced enough to engage the physical withdrawal. It isn’t the case that we have to avoid any alcohol at all; many foods contain trace amounts of alcohol and yeasts and bacteria in our digestive system themselves excrete alcohol which results in trace levels of alcohol in our blood. So trace amounts of alcohol in our blood aren’t the problem, but a sudden spike in alcohol levels can be.
So the question we need to address is; can the small amounts of alcohol in these ‘alcohol-free’ beers cause a physiological reaction?
This is something that it is simply impossible to give an answer to because alcoholic drinks affect different individuals in different ways. A 90lb female was hasn’t eaten for 3 days and has just been for a 30-mile run is going to have a very different experience when drinking an alcoholic drink than a male 400lb body builder who’s just eaten 3 large pizzas and who hasn’t moved from his sofa for 3 days.
Sex, weight, muscle mass, exercise, metabolism, amount of food currently inside us, all affect the speed in which the alcohol from a drink is absorbed into the bloodstream. It is simply impossible to say what level of alcohol any individual can safely drink without triggering a physiological reaction.
The confusion, unfortunately, is exacerbated because there are studies showing that even fully alcohol-free beers can trigger a physiological reaction in previously heavy drinkers (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3717546/). This is as expected if you think about it, after all the human brain cannot differentiate between something imagined and something real. If you watch a film with a scary part in it, you will find your heart rate accelerating which is your body’s physiological reaction to perceived danger. This is no different in principle to anticipating having a drink. This again must vary from individual and will depend on the degree to which they have been conditioned to associate a certain situation or flavour with alcohol.
So I’m afraid it is impossible to give any firm guidance on this topic. Many people do drink alcohol ‘free’ drinks and have no problem with them. I myself have drunk them numerous times, both the fully alcohol-free options (like Bavaria) and those that are technically alcohol ‘free’ even though they still do contain alcohol. Quite recently I drank a bottle of an alcohol ‘free’ beer that was 0.5% alcohol and felt quite anxious the next day. This anxiety may have been completely unrelated to that beer, or it may have been a direct consequence of it. Either way, I’ve solved the problem because I’m not going to drink anything that has 0.5% alcohol in it again. And this I think is the best advice anyone can give on this topic, which is that if you aren’t 100% happy or have any doubts at all then DON’T DRINK IT! It really is that simple. There’s absolutely no reason to drink a drink with trace amounts of alcohol in it if you don’t want to, and equally, there is no reason to drink wine or beer even if it has no alcohol in it at all. Just as you don’t need alcohol to enjoy and live your life, neither do you need alcohol-free beers or wines to do so either.