October 30, 2023/Wellness

Nonalcoholic Drinks Are on the Rise — But Are They Good for You?

Options for sober social drinking are abundant, but be mindful about additives and triggers

group of people with non-alcoholic beverages

You’re at a party with friends and everyone’s mingling. Suddenly, someone turns to you and asks a seemingly simple question: “Can I get you a drink?” Your mind goes blank as you try to think of some nonalcoholic options.

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Maybe you’re in recovery or you’re pregnant. Perhaps you’re sober-curious, starting a new medication that doesn’t mix with alcohol or finding that drinking is having a negative impact on your health. Whatever your motivation, you’re likely discovering that navigating a nonalcoholic lifestyle can sometimes be difficult in social situations.

Luckily, as more people are drinking less, there’s been an uptick in more drink companies creating nonalcoholic options. But it can still be tough to figure out which of these options are healthy.

Registered dietitian Beth Czerwony, RD, LD, weighs in on the rise of nonalcoholic drink options and what to know before your next toast with friends.

The popularity of nonalcoholic drinks

In recent years, there have been some big shifts in the way people are engaging with alcohol in their lives. A recent Gallup poll found a decline in young adults’ drinking habits. Based on self-reported statistics, the average number of drinks young adults consumed dropped from 5.2 to 3.6 between 2001 and 2023.

This shift comes at the same time as a 2023 World Health Organization (WHO) report noting that even the smallest amount of alcohol is still not safe for your health. So, the rise of mocktails and nonalcoholic drink alternatives is good timing.

But here are some things to consider as you navigate the options of nonalcoholic drinks.

Nonalcoholic drink options

Nonalcoholic drink options can be as simple as ordering an ice water or as creative as a mocktail or lemonade mix. It all comes down to your preference, health history and motivation (AKA: Why do you want to cut down on drinking in the first place?).

“I always go back to the ‘why,’” says Czerwony. “Why do you want to stop or reduce your drinking? Is it because you’re having health concerns? Or is it because you feel like crud right after you drink? Then, you can look at the distinct options and decide which avenue to go down.”

Here are some different nonalcoholic options to consider:

’Virgin’ cocktails or mocktails

These are the drinks that have all the building blocks of well-known cocktails, minus the alcohol. If you’re comfortable with trying these, you can simply ask for a “virgin” or “nonalcoholic” version of your favorite cocktail.

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You can also directly ask for combinations that mimic cocktails like:

  • Soda water with lime or lemon.
  • Soda water with cranberry juice.
  • Faux margarita.
  • Basil lemonade.

“If you wanted to do a virgin version of something like a mojito or daiquiri, you’re still getting the feel of having a cocktail, but you’re not getting the alcohol,” Czerwony says.

Nonalcoholic beers and wines

If your go-to beverages are beers and wines, you’re in luck because there are nonalcoholic versions of these as well. These options can be especially helpful if you’re trying to slowly transition away from drinking and want to comfortably socialize (without anyone asking unwanted questions about your drink choice).

“You may have social stressors when you’re with a group of friends and they’re all drinking,” recognizes Czerwony. “And maybe you don’t want to just be drinking a soda. So, nonalcoholic beers and wines might be one good option to help wean yourself away from alcohol.”

Tea or sparkling waters

Another good option is going for a cup of simple hot tea — this can especially hit the spot during a cold winter evening. But also, teas that have different herbal flavors, like peppermint, ginger or lemon balm, can add that bit of spice that you’re craving.

Plus, some of these herbal teas are known to promote relaxation — and who doesn’t want that in a social setting?

If you’re not a fan of tea, Czerwony recommends just infusing peppermint, rosemary or mint into a cold glass of sparkling water. The bubbles will make you feel refreshed, while the herbs will add a natural — and sometimes, calming — twist. You can explore adding simple syrups or flavor enhancers to some soda water (or regular water) as well.

Store-bought mocktails

While browsing the beverage aisle at the grocery store, you may have come across some alcohol alternatives. These are often carbonated or noncarbonated drinks that have similar mixtures to cocktails but without the alcohol content. A lot of these are a good option if you’re trying to experiment with different flavors and want to add a bit of spice to your sober lifestyle. But be sure to look past the flashy marketing and pay attention to the nutrition labels (more on that in a moment).

What are the health benefits of nonalcoholic drinks?

Cutting out alcohol from your social beverages is a definite plus when it comes to living a healthier lifestyle, but are there any other benefits to nonalcoholic options? As Czerwony points out, it all depends on the brand and type you go for, as well as what your usual intake of alcohol is.

In general, cutting down on alcohol can reduce your risk for:

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Are there any health risks to nonalcoholic drinks?

Alcohol or no alcohol, you should always pay attention to what you’re putting in your body — especially if it’s a new brand beverage you’ve never tried before. Here are some things to look out for:

Risk for relapse

Keep in mind your own history with alcohol. Whether you’re currently going through recovery or you’re serving a friend at dinner, it’s essential to be sensitive to any triggers.

For example, even though there are a ton of tasty mocktails out there, the ones that are modeled after alcoholic cocktails (think: a virgin mojito) can possibly trigger someone into relapse. Czerwony cautions that if you’re worried about going down a slippery slope with certain drinks, you should seek out other alternatives.

Sugar content and artificial sweeteners

Just because a drink is nonalcoholic doesn’t mean it’s 100% healthy. Make sure to keep an eye on nutritional labels when switching out your rum and coke for just a regular soda or your glass of wine for apple juice. Especially if you have any pre-existing conditions that are affected by sugar intake, be sure to keep track of how much sugar these nonalcoholic options have.

Impact of caffeine

Keep in mind that a lot of alcohol alternatives may have caffeine additives — even if they’re not marketed as energy drinks or bottled coffee beverages. It’s also good to know that some drinks may have other additives similar (or more intense) than caffeine. For example, guarana has been popping up in different beverages, which is an ingredient derived from berries and actually has double the caffeine of coffee beans.

Be aware of any vitamin additives

The makers of a lot of popular nonalcoholic drinks are trying out new ingredients to make their products more enticing. So, it’s important to keep an eye on what some of these drinks are adding after they’ve removed the alcohol. Supplements like B12, L-theanine and L-tyrosine are often added to nonalcoholic-branded drinks. While some people may take these supplements for other reasons, you always want to check with a healthcare provider about how much of a supplement is safe for you to take.

The bottom line

Most healthcare providers and physicians will tell you that cutting down on alcohol is a good thing. So, if you’re trying to explore an alcohol-free lifestyle, know that there are many benefits for your health and mental well-being. And there are many alternative drink options out there to help you.

“I think the bottom line is if you don’t drink, don’t start,” advises Czerwony. “And if you feel like you need to cut down, you probably should.”

If you feel like you’re having trouble managing your drinking, there are other tools that you can try. And if you’re not sure about what nonalcoholic drinks are best for your overall health, it’s never a bad idea to check in with a doctor.

Learn more about our editorial process.

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