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Is There Really Such a Thing as Healthy Alcohol?

Wellness trends are coming for your spiked seltzer.
15 May 2020, 7:00amUpdated on 15 May 2020, 12:24am
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Collage by Lia Kantrowitz | Image via Shutterstock

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

Five years ago, most of us had never heard of hard seltzer. Now, it’s a booming market—one financial analyst told S&P Global that its worth could double from $1.75 billion in 2019 to $3.5 billion in 2020. Certainly, its popularity has something to do with our cultural obsession with wellness; brands market hard seltzers with buzzy terms like "low-carb" and "gluten-free" and voluntarily print nutrition labels on their packaging. (The latter isn’t a requirement for alcoholic beverages because they’re regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Trade Bureau (TTB) and not the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which should be the first reason you question whether “hard seltzer” and “wellness” should ever really be in the same sentence.)

Last month, a newly launched hard seltzer took the wellness-aligned marketing strategy even further. Vizzy is trying to differentiate itself as “the only hard seltzer with antioxidant Vitamin C.” According to its label, a 12-ounce can will deliver 20 percent of your recommended daily intake, and comes “from acerola superfruit.”

If your bullshit alarm is roaring, know that Vizzy isn’t the only booze trying to capitalize on wellness. Sufferfest Beer is "brewed for athletes" with ingredients like electrolytes (salt) and coconut water. The Dry Farm Wines website is full of testimonials from popular paleo devotees, complete with a mention of "biohacking." Gem and Bolt mezcal is distilled with damiana, a wild shrub that allegedly reduces anxiety and boosts sexual health.

All of this is ambiguous and more than a little vague because it has to be: The TTB prohibits “health-related statements that are false or misleading” in alcohol labeling and marketing, as well as all “statements that are false and untrue.” It’s why these brands list health-signaling ingredients without making any real claims about health benefits themselves— they’re relying on you to make the connection that these products are better for you than regular old alcohol. But the science is pretty clear on the fact that adding nutrients to alcohol doesn't make it healthier. Here’s why.

Alcohol affects both your immediate metabolism and your long-term health.

The negative effects of drinking are caused by alcohol itself—the other stuff in any drink, whether it’s extra vitamin C or a lower sugar content, is kind of beside the point because there’s still booze in there. Ethanol (the kind of alcohol we drink) is a toxin—our bodies can’t use it for anything good, and it gets in the way of important processes that keep us alive and thriving. As soon as we drink it, our liver hurries to break it down into less harmful chemicals, which eventually we pee out, explained Ryan Andrews, a dietitian and principal nutritionist at Precision Nutrition. Ethanol is also a diuretic, causing your kidneys to remove fluid from your blood more quickly than normal—it’s why you pee more often when you’re drinking, and why you often wake up dehydrated the next day.

This process of elimination takes precedence over all other metabolic processes, like using protein for tissue repair and absorbing the vitamins and minerals in our food. If you drink too much or too often, this can lead to nutrient deficiencies.

All of this is bad, but it actually gets a little worse: Ethanol that isn’t broken down in the liver travels to your small and large intestines, where most of your nutrients are absorbed. “Alcohol metabolism here can shift the balance of gut bacteria in favor of bad bacteria (as opposed to the good stuff) and increase the permeability (or “leakiness”) of the intestine,” said Christina Lebonville, an alcohol researcher at the Medical University of South Carolina. Over time, this damage to your intestinal lining means you start absorbing toxins and pathogens along with nutrients. And there’s nothing about supposedly healthier alcohols that can dull this effect, because alcohol is inherently the problem.

Because of all this, “Drinking alcohol increases your risk of developing many different diseases (including a bunch of cancers) or worsening existing conditions,” Lebonville said. Choosing supposedly “healthier” alcohol won’t minimize these risks—the only way to do that is to drink less, or not at all.

Can added vitamins and minerals offset the negative effects of alcohol?

Nope. Ethanol is ethanol, whether you drink it in a chocolate mudslide, a spiked green smoothie, or a can of Vizzy. “Vitamin C does not prevent the production of acetaldehyde [the byproduct of ethanol breakdown that, in large enough quantities, can give you a raging hangover], nor the detrimental metabolic effects of alcohol abuse,” said Russell Turner, a research professor at Oregon State University’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences. It’s also unlikely that your body would absorb all the vitamin C anyway—one 2016 study found that, over time, alcohol can negatively affect your body’s ability to do just that.

The idea of Sufferfest beer, or any alcoholic beer, as a recovery drink is flawed, too. “I am not sure I could come up with a worse approach for the weekend warrior who wants to recover quickly from a hard workout,” Turner said, explaining that “the goals of recovery include rehydration and restoring glycogen [AKA carbohydrate] stores.” Alcohol is dehydrating, so that’s strike one. And since most of the calories in these recovery beers” come from alcohol, they don’t do much to help build your carbohydrate stores back up. Sure, added salt might help replenish electrolytes lost through sweating, but there’s such a small amount in these beers that it really wouldn’t make much difference.

What about hangovers?

Testimonials on the Dry Farm Wines website imply that lower-sugar, lower-sulfite wines are less likely to cause a hangover. For some people, that might be true. “Sulfites are used to preserve wine and may worsen the symptoms of hangover—specifically, headaches—only in people who are sensitive to sulfites,” Lebonville said. Despite all the hoopla about them, the FDA estimates that only about one percent of people are actually sensitive to sulfites. While low-sugar or sugar-free drinks might help you avoid the blood sugar spike and crash that can worsen hangover symptoms, like headaches and thirst, they won’t do anything to prevent the hangover itself, which is caused by too much acetaldehyde (the ethanol byproduct) in your bloodstream.

“Alcohol itself is the main hangover cause,” Lebonville said. The more alcohol you drink, the more acetaldehyde will build up, and the worse your hangover will be.

The thing about many of these wellness-adjacent booze products is that they’re relatively low-alcohol. Sufferfest beers range from 3.5 to 5.5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), far lower than most craft beers. All Dry Farm Wines are 12.5 percent ABV or less, whereas many red wines clock in around 14 percent. And Vizzy is 5 percent ABV, much less than your average mixed drink and about the same as a regular canned beer like Budweiser. If you’re drinking the same amount, but choosing drinks with lower ABVs, you’ll probably have less of a hangover.

Alcohol can be part of a healthy overall lifestyle, but alcohol itself will never be healthy.

In terms of being lower ABV, the aforementioned “healthier” alcohol products might have an edge when it comes to minimizing long-term health risks. But pouring less whiskey into your coke would have the same effect, as would choosing a regular lager over a triple IPA. Because, and I feel a little like a broken record here, the negative health risks associated with alcohol are a result of alcohol itself, not what it may or may not be mixed with.

All of this isn’t to say that everyone should quit drinking immediately—social drinking can be fun, and fun can boost your mental health. But, Andrews said, “There’s a thin line between health-promoting and health-harming. Beyond one or two drinks per day, alcohol will likely displace nutrients, increase health risks, and lead to other problems.” If your drink of choice is antioxidant-infused hard seltzer as you observe those limits, that’s fine—it’s no worse than anything else.

It’s no better, either. “Any company [implying] that drinking alcohol is healthy is preying on people’s fantasies,” Lebonville said. “I’d say that drinking FOR your health is like driving a car to avoid getting in a car crash. It makes no sense.”

Follow Christine Byrne on Twitter.

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