There are some things that we generally accept as being healthy without really knowing exactly why, even if the science behind them is questionable. We pop multivitamins, consume carrots for better eyesight and eat an apple a day to keep the doctor away. Even if these things aren’t actively helping us, doing them is relatively benign. The stakes are mighty low.
But some claims to health can actually invite harm, like asserting that beverages containing alcohol can be a positive addition to your well being. And, yet, In recent years brands both big and small have tried to make their booze seem healthier by touting their respective products as gluten-free (which distilled spirits are by nature), or purport their alcoholic beverage to be “clean,” or claim they were producing “mindful” cocktails that are kind of, sort of good for you. Booze brands are trying to act like we can have our cake and drink it too. That somehow our vice, in actuality, is drenched in virtue. However, alcohol is not healthy, full stop, and that’s okay. All we ask is that these brands should stop trying to convince people that it is.
“Experts agree that the only truly ‘safe’ amount of alcohol to consume is none,” says Debbie Petitpain, MS RDN and media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “For those who don’t drink, it’s not advised you start drinking for any perceived health benefits.” Petitpain went on to detail the immediate effects of consuming alcohol, which include slower reflexes, heart rate and blood flow alteration and digestive tract irritation. She agrees that claims around health are dubious at best, even if there’s still some debate around moderate alcohol consumption and cardiovascular benefits. “Bottom line? Moderate amounts of alcohol consumption is low-risk but ‘moderation’ is hard. Those at an increased risk for certain cancers should be cautious and those who want to lower their risk of heart disease should focus on healthy eating and regular exercise as primary strategies to lowering risk.”
“Clean” has recently gained traction in the healthy booze space, but what does that really mean? Is a tequila that is additive free and made with only natural ingredients clean? Or is that marketing speak really designed to convince you that spirit X can augment your overall health and mental state? For Cameron Diaz’s wine brand Avaline, it leans on the term clean almost like a next level up from “organic,” implying the booze has a purity not found in other wine. But without any trade organization or legal entity certifying what makes a product clean, it’s that gray area that marketers can exploit to make their product sound more virtuous.
The slipperiness goes beyond broad terms like clean and organic, with some brands pointing to specific ingredients conveying a benefit to consumers. El Sativo tequila recently had a campaign that focused on terpenes, which are aromatic compounds found in plants like agave. Language like “mood lifting and energy boosting attributes” were used to describe the effects this tequila might have on you, which seems disingenuous and manipulative. According to Petitpain, lab and animal studies have shown that terpenes may have potential benefits, including anti-inflammatory, anti-depressant and antioxidant properties, but they would have to be consumed regularly to really come into play. “Moderate alcohol consumption likely doesn’t contribute significant amounts of terpenes,” she says, “and alcohol (be it tequila, beer or wine) shouldn’t be consumed just for any perceived benefit from terpenes.”
Ketel One Botanicals, a flavored version of the Dutch vodka, is another example that could be problematic. The language used to describe it stops short of calling it “healthy,” but the main selling points are that it has no sugar, no artificial flavors or sweetener, no carbs and only 73 calories per serving. So… healthier vodka? Even if the brand isn’t explicitly positioning it as such, that’s how it’s being written about at many lifestyle websites, where many have called it “diet vodka.”
Then there’s hard kombucha. Brands like Local Roots try to appeal to the “health-conscious” drinker, while PR for JuneShine literally called it “better-for-you alcohol.” The reality is that it’s possible to hold two thoughts in our heads at once—a canned cocktail can be made with organic ingredients and have no added sugar (which is healthier), but still have alcohol (which counteracts the benefits). American Spirits might be made from organic tobacco, but the brand still has to legally make it clear that does “not mean a safer cigarette.”
A lot of this starts to feel like brands preying on our desire to remain healthy, especially two years into a global pandemic, and our universal fear of mortality. And heavier drinking has indeed been a form of self medication for some during this time, which makes the healthier booze claim feel even more cynical.
I’m obviously far from a teetotaler, and temperance is the furthest thing from my mind—I write about booze for a living and very much enjoy a drink or two. But it’s dangerous and misleading to link booze to health. It’s already disorienting enough for people, with studies coming out seemingly every year that swing from showing how drinking is beneficial, to warnings that even a single drink can be hazardous.
“It’s confusing because there is some research that shows alcohol in small amounts can positively affect the body—especially heart health,” said Ginger Hultin MS RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist, owner of Champagne Nutrition. However she notes the potential negatives, including elevated cancer risk and damage to the pancreas and liver. “I’d argue that alcohol cannot be labeled a health food,” she said, “but there is some evidence that it could potentially benefit health in some ways, at low levels, for some people. The guidelines very clearly state that people should not start drinking for their ‘health’ if they don’t. Not drinking at all seems to be healthiest.”
I will admit, I’ve contributed to the problem in the past, something I’m not especially proud of. I once got an assignment to write about healthier holiday cocktails. I took the job, though I made sure to note in my piece that any drink that has alcohol can’t truly be considered healthy. Still, I listed recipes for drinks that incorporated ingredients rich in vitamins and antioxidants or substituted avocado for heavy cream, and positioned these as healthier alternatives. And yes, there might be some truth to that relative to those specific ingredients, but let’s not forget they are still based around booze.
The way the concept of healthier booze is framed is a big part of the problem. Drinking is not supposed to be healthy for you, so why try to convince people of that? The same could be said about dessert—if I’m going to have cake, I want a decadent treat, not something that is made with fat free milk, sugar substitutes and whole wheat flour. Of course, if you have special dietary or health issues, you deserve a piece of chocolate cake that you can eat too, so these alternatives have their place. But it’s also okay to allow yourself to consume something that’s not very good for you and enjoy it every now and then without being told to try an alternative that’s “guilt-free.” There is no reason to feel any shame about enjoying a drink or two. So let’s stop with the deceptive claims of “better-for-you” and “guilt-free” booze and cocktails. At its most benign, this is wishful thinking based on a difference of a few calories. But at its worst, the concept of healthy alcoholic beverages is a cynical marketing tool that has the potential of doing harm.