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From wellness beers to clean spirits: the desperate rebranding of booze as a health drink

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 19/06/2019 Tomé Morrissy-Swan

Young woman drinking a Mojito, the traditional Caribbean alcoholic beverage made with rum, sugar, lemon and hiberabuena or mint © Getty Young woman drinking a Mojito, the traditional Caribbean alcoholic beverage made with rum, sugar, lemon and hiberabuena or mint Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

On the face of it, the alcohol industry is doing just fine at the moment. Craft beer breweries are ten a penny; Britain’s vineyards attract plenty of financial backing; and on any given weekend night you’re likely to encounter small armies of merry drinkers in towns and cities up and down the country.

But beneath the rosy cheeks and ruddy noses, there's a different story: one that appears to be troubling booze makers around the Western world. Millennials, over a quarter of whom are said to be teetotal, are spending less on drinking than previous generations; and their tight pockets are contributing to the forces that are squeezing shut our pub doors. While there are several reasons behind this sobriety – cost; demographics; decreasing social stigma towards not drinking; or you’ve just had enough of debilitating hangovers – the main one, arguably, is health.

Younger people today are known to be more clean living than their elders – and they're health consciousness is translating into a booming wellness industry, which is anticipated to be worth €20.5 billion by 2020 in the UK alone.  Now alcohol brands are cottoning on, looking for a slice of the pie (or a pint from the well).

According to a recent article on Business Insider, drinks brands are responding to the Great Millennial Exodus by marketing their product as wellbeing drinks. Friendly-sounding terms are becoming ubiquitous – “wellness beers”; “skinny lagers”; “clean spirits”; “paleo-friendly”; “natural”.

“I started noticing it in January this year” says Jane Peyton, drinks educator and founder of the School of Booze, of the trend. “The month may be coincidental but many drinkers eschew alcohol in January as a New Year’s resolution. Perhaps brands were capitalising on this to use ‘healthy’ language to market their products.”

Indeed, it may be a coincidence, but it’s easy to see how drinkers could be sucked into thinking an alcoholic drink may be resolution-proof. “Clean” and “natural”? Surely that’s fine? “It is misleading,” Peyton warns. “Using that type of language can give the impression that people can use those alcoholic drinks to promote good health.”

So, can these drinks really be healthy – or at least, healthier? The core problem is that alcohol is alcohol however it's packaged up – and, as the NHS puts it, alcohol misuse can leadto “adverse effects on almost every part of your body”. Of course, we all know this, yet 28 per cent of men and 14 per cent of women in Britain consume more than the 'safe' limit of 14 units a week.

Alcoholic Gin and Tonic with a Lime Garnish © Getty Alcoholic Gin and Tonic with a Lime Garnish For Dr Cyrus Abbasian, a psychiatrist and addiction specialist at the Nightingale Hospital in London, there’s simply no such thing as a clean or healthy alcoholic drink. “It’s all hazardous, though some less so than others,” he explains. Even if it’s “pure, artisanal, and deliciously clean” as one American natural wine manufacturer says of its product, it’s still alcohol. Calorie or sugar content may alter (though this is rarely labelled), but it is “the alcohol content that causes the damage” says Dr Abbasian.

For a long time, conventional wisdom has posited that a small amount of alcohol is good for you. How often do centenarians ascribe the secret to their good health to a regular tot of whisky? Moderate alcohol has been linked to lower levels of heart disease and diabetes. But last year a study in the Lancet concluded that the safest level consumption of alcohol was a big fat zero; the benefits are simply not enough to outweigh the negatives.

Which is why in 2017, when CollaGin – a gin with added collagen – obviously – described its drink as “The Elixir of Youth" and “rejuvenating” (collagen is a structural protein), it was admonished by The Portman Group, the trade’s responsibility body, after receiving complaints from the public.

Then there’s Gem&Bolt, an American mezcal brand, which promotes its “clean spirit” with added damiana, said to have “mood-elevating properties” and for “endowing mything powers in the bedroom”. That may be so, but, leaving aside the lack of scientific evidence, there’s the small matter of the 44pcABV content.

Looking for cocktails online? You may stumble across headlines like: “8 Cocktails You Can Drink All Night and Not Get Fat”. I’ll have some of that, please. “Alcohol contains calories, so do the other ingredients that make up a cocktail, so unless these cocktails are made from water and nothing else then they are calorific,” says Peyton.

three glass of white red and rose wine with dim light in wooden restaurant table with a grape background © Getty three glass of white red and rose wine with dim light in wooden restaurant table with a grape background Then there’s natural wine. In fairness here, the majority of producers aren't promoting bogus health claims – the term “natural” refers to things like organic, low-intervention farming, no additives and minimal chemical interference (e.g. sulphites). However, on the shop floor, it's possible to construe the word as offering a healthier alternative. Is natural wine healthier? While there may be issues with sulphites, which some people claim to be allergic to, the science is in its infancy. And swigging bottles of wine, even natural, won't end well. 

“In the same way that organic food has really taken off in recent years, I’m not surprised about organic alcoholic drinks,” says Dr Abbasian. “But as an addiction specialist what I worry about is the alcohol content, not whether it’s organic or not. The alcohol is the same.”

What about the growing trend for lower alcoholic beers (and wines and spirits)? “I’m very much in favour of low-alcohol beers,” says Dr Abbasian. So they're healthier? “I prefer the term less dangerous,” he retorts.

“There is no doubt that today’s drinker is more health-conscious,” says Felix James, co-founder of the Small Beer Brew Co, which dedicates itself to low-alcohol beers. James points out that beer can have nutritious benefits (it contains B vitamins, iron and micronutrients like zinc, magnesium and selenium) – but is quick to add that his company avoids making weighty promises of life-extending elixirs. “The laws around the marketing of alcohol clearly forbid us from making health claims. As with all good things in life, the key is consumption in moderation. 

"Certainly, there are some companies that are pushing their luck."

Which brings us back to the crux of it. Drinking is undoubtedly one of Britain’s favourite pastimes – but, for many of us, it can get out of hand, with profound effects on health. And that applies whether or not your tipple of choice is branded with a 'healthy-living' design.

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