Are mocktails good for you? What you need to know about booze-free beverages

Non-alcoholic beverages, known as mocktails, can be a healthy alternative to alcohol. (Photo: Getty)
Non-alcoholic beverages, known as mocktails, can be a healthy alternative to alcohol. (Photo: Getty) (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The holiday season is in full swing. Time for food, festivities and overindulgences. But if the thought of spiked eggnog and champagne toasts is already giving you a headache, you may want to explore the growing trend of mocktails.

These booze-free beverages are gaining in popularity thanks in part to the sober-curious movement — in which people are consciously cutting back on their alcohol intake or are considering becoming sober. In fact, U.S. sales of low or no-alcohol wines, beers and spirits now top $3.1 billion, up from $291 million last year. And it's a market that’s predicted to grow by more than five percent annually over the next five years.

Sean Goldsmith, the co-founder of The Zero Proof, one of the largest importers of non-alcoholic spirits in the U.S., says passing on alcohol is no longer just for those in recovery or trying to dry out for a month. "One of the biggest misconceptions that I encounter is about who the customer is," Goldsmith tells Yahoo Life. "A lot of people think that these products are just for people who don't drink at all, which is not the case. The majority of these customers are alcohol drinkers. It's very much a trend of moderation."

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Goldsmith adds: "The number one reason that this sector is growing and having the success it's having is wellness — people are just trying to be healthier."

The health benefits of drinking less alcohol

Experts say that cutting back on alcohol is good for your health. In fact, according to Harvard Health, research shows that "the best option for overall health was no drinking at all."

Alcohol is the third-leading preventable cause of death in the U.S., according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. An estimated 95,000 people die from alcohol-related causes each year, according to the organization.

"Over the years, a lot of studies have suggested that moderate alcohol consumption may be beneficial for health," Diana Licalzi, a registered dietitian and co-author of Mocktail Party: 75 Plant-Based, Non-Alcoholic Mocktail Recipes for Every Occasion. "But there’s a growing body of evidence that suggests that even light to moderate drinking can have negative health effects, especially in the context of cancer."

Studies show drinking even small amounts of alcohol increases your risk for developing multiple types of cancer including breast, head and neck cancers. These findings have led The World Health Organization to declare that the safest level of alcohol to consume is none.

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Pay attention to what's in non-booze beverages

Mocktails are a great way to reduce your intake of alcohol, says Licalzi, "while still being able to enjoy the experience" of a cocktail-like beverage. But before you reach for a zero-proof drink, make sure you're not replacing a toxic substance with other ingredients that aren't necessarily good for your health.

"Mocktails, similar to cocktails, can be very juice heavy and can often be loaded with sugar and syrups, which is not the healthiest," says Licalzi. She also recommends being mindful of sodas and tonic waters, "as they tend to be pretty full of sugar," Licalzi says. Instead, she recommends choosing unsweetened or flavored seltzer water.

The same goes for certain drink mixes, such as margarita mixes or frozen lemonade drinks, which "if you just had a margarita mix on the rocks, those tend to be pretty high in calories and sugar and more creamy." To cut back on calories, Licalzi suggests adding "a splash of juice to your seltzer water for flavor or you could cut juice with an equal amount of seltzer water to decrease the sugar content," she says. "Those are good ways to get a nice little balance."

Some of the more unique non-alcoholic cocktails can include herbs, such as Ashwagandha, a traditional root from India. But the director of nutrition and chef instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education, Celine Beitchman, says consumers need to do some homework before they order these drinks.

"People tend to think that herbs, because they're more naturally occurring, are therefore always good," Beitchman tells Yahoo Life. "But herbs interact with body systems, they interact with medications. So we want to be cautious that people are not just adding things to their bodies that their bodies can't handle because they're taking something else."

Beitchman says mocktail (and cocktail) ingredients that can easily be overlooked include cinnamon and licorice, which can affect blood pressure, or mint, which can trigger reflux and gastrointestinal pain in some people.

How to choose a healthy mocktail

To get the healthiest bang for your buck, Licalzi suggests seeking out mocktails with fresh ingredients, such as whole fruits, fresh herbs and even vegetables. "So, like a virgin Bloody Mary that's made with tomato juice, which is very high in the antioxidant called lycopene, which can help protect our cells from damage," she says.

Adding whole fruits to your beverage provides flavor and sweetness without adding sugar. Fruits that include the skins, such as muddled blueberries, also come with a dose of fiber, which can slow down the body's absorption of sugars. If you're feeling spicy, Licalzi suggests adding herbs and spices such as ginger, which gives the drink a bit of a bite that can taste similar to alcohol.

"The secret to a great mocktail is really balance because alcohol provides a very strong flavor that is usually offset by the sweetness in the drink," says Licalzi, "and many mocktails can be overly sweet if there's nothing in there to balance it out. Using ingredients like apple cider vinegar, ginger, citrus juice, fresh herbs and spices, can really balance out those drinks and balance them out in a healthy way as well."

Whether you're looking for a non-alcoholic version of your favorite cocktail or just want to experiment with some flavorful beverages that don't contain booze, it's a great time to explore the exploding market of mocktails. And your body just might thank you for it.

"I am an advocate for helping others reexamine their relationship with alcohol and finding ways to enjoy these social events without having to rely on alcohol to have fun," says Licalzi. "And you can do it in a way that really benefits your health."

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