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Real talk: How freaked should I be about the sugar content in alcohol?

Well+Good logo Well+Good 11/6/2019 Emily Laurence
a woman talking on a cell phone: sugar in alcohol © Photo: Stocksy/Cameron Whitman sugar in alcohol

Alcohol and the wellness world don't necessarily go hand-in-hand. While a glass of wine every now and then is certainly encouraged on the Mediterranean diet, more and more people have turned to to the "sober curious" movement in response to alcohol's many side effects (from hangovers to anxiety and disrupted sleep). Brands have even created innovative no-ABV or low-ABV options for people who want to limit their intake but still have something fun to sip on. But the health factor isn't just about the alcohol content. Many people are also concerned about their sugar intake—and certain wines and cocktails have a rep for being super sugary.

Here's the thing: It's tough to know what exactly is in any alcoholic drink since the labeling laws vary so much. Some types of alcohol don't have to disclose any nutritional or ingredient information beyond the ABV. So if you're trying to be mindful of your sugar intake, that can make choosing a drink feel like rolling the dice. It's time to clear up exactly what's in your glass, and how sugar in alcohol impacts your overall health. Keep reading for the need-to-know intel that just might impact your go-to happy hour order.

Where does the sugar in alcohol come from?

Before we get into how the sugar in alcohol affects the body, it helps to know where it's actually coming from, which alcohol and sugar expert Chris Beatty says varies based on what's being fermented. (Remember, alcohol is created by combining yeast plus some form of sugar or carbohydrate, like grapes, wheat, or potatoes.)

With wine, for example, Beatty explains that while sugar comes the grapes, the longer a wine is fermented, the less sugar will be in the end result since the yeast has had more time to eat up the sugar. "Dry red and white wines have almost no sugar, but a sweet wine can have quite a bit," he says. [The range varies between less than one teaspoon of sugar per glass of a very dry wine to roughly four teaspoons of sugar per glass in a very sweet dessert wine.]

"People assume sweet wines, like champagne, are full of sugar, but that's really not true," registered dietitian and Champagne Nutrition founder Ginger Hultin, RD says. "A glass of white wine typically has less than one gram of residual sugar, meaning the sugar leftover after fermentation."

However, Beatty says that some wine companies will use flavorings or other additives—which you won't find on the label. This type of deception is what led Mark Warren and Tom Beaton to found FitVine Wine, which is not only free of additives but also tested to be low in sulfites. (They also list the sugar content on their labels, even though it's not legally required.) "Many wine brands—regardless of the price—will use sugar based additives, so that's where the extra sugar in wine can come in that many people don't know," Warren says.

Beer, Beatty says, is another story. While there's technically no sugar in beer, he says that the grains used to make the beer get broken down by the yeast into sugar-like leftovers. "There are these short-chain sugars leftover that are neither pure sugar not long enough or big enough to be starch; it's these in-betweens that the yeast can't break apart, but we can," he says. "So when we drink beer, there's none of the fermentable sugar left, but there are some of those chains of sugars that are usable carbohydrates."

Then there are spirits, which Beatty says are the most complicated because they depend so much on what is being fermented—which again, isn't on the label for consumers to see (with the exception of artificial coloring). Many companies use botanicals (such as ginger, lemon, and juniper), but others, he says, use additives and flavorings, which can have added sugar. But if your spirit—including vodka, gin, whiskey, and tequila—is straight, the sugar content will be zero.

How sugar and alcohol affect the body — and how to make a healthy drink choice

While it's pretty (ahem) sweet news that alcoholic drinks tend to be low in sugar, it's still crucial to remember that alcohol should always be consumed in moderation, especially since it can disrupt your sleep and cause a whole host of side effects if over-consumed.

Hultin adds that just because alcohol itself is generally lower in sugar, it's often served in cocktails or with sugary mixers that can ratchet up that added sugar count. The worst offenders are juices, sodas, simple syrup, and creamy liquors. Thankfully, unlike the alcohols themselves, mixers will have the sugar content listed on the label. "According to the American Heart Association, you want to limit added sugar to six teaspoons a day," Hultin says. But it's totally fine to enjoy a cocktail with that in mind.

Sugary cocktails have a reputation for causing especially cruel hangovers, but that's a bit overblown. "When taken in large amounts, both sugar and alcohol can dehydrate you because they're diuretics," Beatty concedes. "If you take in a lot of sugar, your body will essentially try to equilibrate that by pulling out liquid from your cells to bring the body back to balance, and that can be dehydrating." However, Beatty says unless you're downing daiquiris or margaritas, most alcoholic drinks are pretty moderate when it comes to the sugar content. Of course the underlying takeaway here is that it's important to drink plenty of plain 'ol H20, no matter what alcoholic beverage you're sipping on. (You knew that advice was coming, right?)

Hultin emphasizes that while she 100 percent thinks people can live a healthy life without sacrificing alcohol, she calls out an important point about the studies linking red wine to health that so often make headlines. "If you look at these studies, the participants are having half a glass of wine a day; it really isn't much," she says. "What's more, if you look at studies where participants are having multiple drinks a day, it's linked negatively to health."

The bottom line: It's important to be aware of both sugar intake and alcohol intake—together and separately. And of course, that age old advice of drinking moderately and responsibly is key. This is one instance where the cliche holds true.

Related video: How To Know If You Are Having Too Much Sugar (Provided by Buzz60)

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