I just viewed this interesting video about radioactive ethanol from plants as opposed to non-radioactive ethanol from crude oil. In it, the professor says he's heard it's illegal in the USA to sell alcoholic drinks if they are not radioactive from carbon-14 isotopes. Is this true?

I'm not particularly worried about the implications of the radioactivity, as I indeed understand this type of radioactivity can be expected to be found in others types of food / drinks as well. Rather I am curious as to whether this is actually a way of measuring whether ethanol in drinks is not tampered with by mixing it with ethanol from petroleum.

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    Without getting into a discussion of radioactivity and its implications (bananas are measurably radioactive), I would question the conclusion that the purported radioactivity is the reason for any supposed regulation. Instead, consider the possibility that regulation of the production and sale of ethanol intended for human consumption is more stringent for safety reasons (and sin taxes). – horatio Apr 28 '11 at 13:44
  • @horatio: I'm not particularly worried about the implications of the radioactivity, as I indeed understand this type of radioactivity can be expected to be found in others types of food / drinks as well. Rather I am curious as to whether this is actually a way of measuring whether ethanol in drinks is not tampered with by mixing it with ethanol from petroleum. – Decent Dabbler Apr 28 '11 at 14:15
  • Would you mind adding this to your original question. It's very interesting question I believe, but at the first glance looks like yet another "omg government is trying to poison us all with radiation" type ;) – user288 Apr 28 '11 at 16:51
  • @Sejanus: Hmm, yeah I see your point. I formulated it a bit tendentious and/or sensational. I'll try to rephrase it a bit more neutral. – Decent Dabbler Apr 28 '11 at 17:06
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    A variant of this I heard was an urban legend: two physicists were arguing over whether the vintage on a wine's label was true, so they carbon-dated it, and found it was several million years old - proving it had been fortified with mineral alcohol. – Oddthinking Sep 13 '12 at 13:23

Richard A. Muller is a Professor in the Department of Physics at the University of California at Berkeley, and Faculty Senior Scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.

His course "Physics for Future Presidents" (at UC Berkley) has been released online. In the lecture about Radioactivity he says:

The US government has decided to make it illegal to make drinking alcohol out of oil.

Muller reiterates this in his books Physics and Technology for Future Presidents and The Instant Physicist:

Radioactive Alcohol

The US government has decided that alcohol for human consumption must be made from "natural" materials, such as grains, grapes or fruit. That regulation rules out alcohol made from petroleum.

Natural alcohol gets its carbon from plants; the plants got the carbon from atmospheric carbon dioxide. Atmospheric carbon dioxide is radioactive because of the continued bombardment of cosmic rays that collide with nitrogen molecules and turn it into C-14, radiocarbon.

Petroleum was also made from atmospheric carbon, but it was buried hundreds of millions of years ago, isolated from the radioactive atmoshphere. Radiocarbon has a half-life of about 5700 years, and after 100 million years, there is nearly no atom of C-14 left.

So, a lack of radioactivity would be a giveaway that alcohol was not made from plant material.

Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau - Code of Federal Regulations, Title 27, Chapter 1:

Spirits or distilled spirits:
The substance known as ethyl alcohol, ethanol, or spirits of wine in any form (including all dilutions and mixtures thereof, from whatever source or by whatever process produced), but not fuel alcohol unless specifically stated. The term does not include spirits produced from petroleum, natural gas, or coal.

This seems to confirm that drinking alcohol must not be made from petroleum.

And according to the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Agriculture the standard method for measuring biobased content is ASTM D6866:


[ASTM D6866] applies to products with carbon-based parts that can be combusted completely into carbon dioxide, and it uses radiocarbon, also known as carbon 14, or 14C.

From ASTM International:

[ATSM D6866 are] standard test methods for determining the biobased content of solid, liquid and gaseous samples using radiocarbon analysis

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    You may solve the problem by adding a little bit of Plutonium-239 :) – Dr. belisarius Apr 28 '11 at 17:37
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    So how long can you age that whisky until it becomes illegal to drink? – starblue Apr 29 '11 at 8:04
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    @starblue 60,000 years. Max. – Rusty May 11 '11 at 14:32
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    @belisarius: Probably not -- they presumably test for beta decay, and Pu-239 is an alpha source. – Charles May 26 '11 at 20:00
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    "lack of radioactivity in alcohol indicates it was made from petroleum." ... or coal en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethanol_from_coal – vartec Sep 12 '12 at 14:59

The accepted answer on this is many years old but it also appears to be wrong.

There is a very informative snopes article on the matter. which specifically references the source used in the accepted answer.

The claim that “Liquor and wine are illegal in the U.S. unless they are radioactive” stems from an excerpt that appears in multiple books authored by Berkeley physicist Richard Muller, including “Energy for Future Presidents“. Muller also posted the text of this claim on a Quora thread “What are some mind-blowing facts that sound like BS but are actually true?”

They dug into the official policies on the matter

The only official policy statement that directly touches this topic is a memo, termed a “compliance policy guide” issued in response to a 1957 internal inquiry between the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms taxation and enforcement offices:

Questions have been raised as to whether we can or should continue to consider synthetic alcohol unsuitable for food use. In order to secure more information, we wrote to the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Division, Internal Revenue Service. Their reply included the following paragraphs:

Presently, we authorize the manufacture of vinegar from ethyl alcohol synthesized from natural gas or petroleum derivatives. It is our opinion that most of the distilled spirits used in the production of vinegar are derived from natural gas and petroleum. When such alcohol is used in the production of vinegar, we would consider any reference to ‘grain alcohol’ or ‘neutral grain spirits’ would be misleading for the alcohol and also the name ‘grain vinegar’ would be misleading, except for connoting strength, e.g., 40-grains.

When alcohol is used in the production of beverage products, our regulations require that the source of the alcohol be shown on the label except for cordials and liqueurs. Incidentally, I might add that most of the alcohol used in the production of medicinal preparations and flavors is synthetic.”

Practically and scientifically, pure ethyl alcohol synthesized from natural gas or petroleum products does not differ from that obtained by fermentation with subsequent distillation. Furthermore, foods in which one is used cannot be distinguished objectively from those in which the other is used.

Based on this inquiry, the FDA issued the following policy statement, which does not outlaw the use of synthetic alcohol (derived from petroleum) so long as it is labeled accordingly:

Synthetic ethyl alcohol may be used as a food ingredient or in the manufacturing of vinegar or other chemicals for food use, within limitations imposed by the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, the Alcohol Administration Act, and regulations promulgated under these acts.

Any labeling reference to synthetic alcohol as “grain alcohol” or “neutral grain spirits” is considered false and misleading.

They talked to Thomas Hogue, the Director of Congressional and Public Affairs for the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau

We asked the Tobacco and Alcohol Tax Bureau, the group that would currently be in charge of enforcing such a ban, if any current laws that would prohibit the use of synthetic alcohol in beverages. Thomas Hogue, the Director of Congressional and Public Affairs for the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, provided this response:

I’m not aware of anything that prohibit you from using synthetic alcohol to produce a beverage alcohol product.

He added that it is up to the FDA to determine what is safe, but up to the Tobacco and Alcohol Tax Bureau to prevent consumers from being misled. In that respect, he stated that while it would be legal to use synthetic alcohol, it would have to be labeled accordingly:

I think you can reasonably assume that most consumers are going to expect that any beverage alcohol product they’re drinking comes from fermentation of grains, fruits, or other plant materials. They’re not going to automatically assume that it comes from a synthetic alcohol derived from petroleum or something like that. With that in mind, we would be requiring anybody who makes any product along those lines to label it with a truthful statement of composition. That label would need to have some sort of statement on it that it’s synthetic alcohol derived from petroleum or something very similar to that, and make sure the consumer is not misled about what it is that they’re purchasing.

There is, as well, an established protocol to test a carbon-based substance for its relative fraction of petroleum versus biologically derived material, and this test, ASTM D6866, is indeed based on carbon-14 radioactivity. However, this is not a test that the Tobacco and Alcohol Tax Bureau utilizes, per Hogue:

We do regularly test beverage alcohol. We pull product from the marketplace. Every year we pull a representative sample from the marketplace and test it for a variety of things, but not to determine whether or not it’s synthetic.

Ultimately, this is a cool bit of counterintuitive science that presents a less common use for carbon-14 analysis. However, the evidence that this scientific information is currently used by the United States federal government to prevent synthetic alcohol in beverages is lacking.

  • I am not a chemist, but I can't help but wonder whether it's even economically feasible to synthesize ethanol from petroleum. The more so as there's a fairly large market for ethanol from grains or sugar to be used as a gasoline additive. – jamesqf Apr 20 '17 at 4:24
  • @jamesqf Synthesis of alcohol from petroleum is cheap and widely used industrially. Though many of the methods produce alcohol unsuited for consumption because the products contains contaminants like benzene or methanol. The price of alcoholic drinks is determined more by the tax than the economics of production and the use of plant ethanol in fuel is a function of (hard-to-justify) agricultural subsidies not the underlying production economics. Also much industrial alcohol is deliberately denatured to prevent use in drinks thereby avoiding tax. – matt_black Apr 20 '17 at 10:04
  • So, one could use synthetic alcohol in beverages for human consumption. But could one legally label such products as "vodka", "gin", "schnapps", etc? The claim could be limited to familiar types of alcoholic drinks. – Nate Eldredge Apr 20 '17 at 13:41
  • @NateEldredge I imagine if you called it "mineral vodka" or similar and clearly labelled it as being made from petroleum products. Gin by definition apparently needs to be "distilled from grain or malt" in order to be considered gin. schnapps again might just require clear labeling. – Murphy Apr 21 '17 at 10:09

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