The 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans say that it’s okay for women to have one alcoholic drink per day and men to have two drinks—but that doesn’t mean just any drink. Many cocktail ingredients are decidedly unhealthy and will push you over the recommended daily limits for added sugar, salt, saturated fat and calories. Example: Frozen blended drinks such as piña coladas have between 500 and 900 calories and contain close to 28 grams (112 calories) of added sugars. Note: Each gram of sugar equals four calories. Adults should get no more than 10% of their calories from added sugars, so on a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet, that would be a total of only 200 calories a day.
Bottom Line Personal asked beverage specialist Ryan Ehrlichman how you can have your cocktail (or mocktail) without blowing your diet or damaging your health…
It’s best to avoid premade mixes, especially ones for margaritas. They almost all have excess processed sugars, lots of sodium and artificial flavorings and dyes. Also avoid: Frozen and concentrated juices, which typically contain added sugars.
Better: Make your own mixes from scratch using fresh fruits…sugar alternatives such as honey, agave nectar, maple syrup…and liqueurs such as Grand Marnier, Frangelico, Irish Mist and Campari…plus select herbs and spices.
It’s easy to grow your own herbs on a windowsill or in an outdoor garden to use in your cocktails. Mint and basil are the most commonly used, and they can completely change the flavor of common concoctions. Example: A traditional gimlet is three-quarter ounces of lime juice, three-quarter ounces of simple syrup and two ounces of gin. (You can make your own simple syrup by combining one cup of white sugar with one cup of water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil while stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Allow to cool before using.) By muddling (or gently crushing) some basil or mint leaves before shaking the cocktail, you can tamp down the sweetness and add a peppery, minty taste.
Also: Avoid cheap liqueurs, which tend to contain more artificial flavors and processed sugars than more expensive brands, and inexpensive spirits, which may contain harmful chemical compounds.
Ingredients to Avoid
Some ingredients should never be used, no matter how trendy they currently are. Avoid…
Activated charcoal: This ingredient, found in Black Friday Detox and other popular cocktails, is touted for its health-promoting properties, but it can be dangerous for some people. When ingested, activated charcoal absorbs anything else you’ve consumed, and that can interfere with the absorption of certain prescription medications. Activated charcoal also can cause stomach cramps and even may lead to bowel obstruction.
Quinine: Quinine is the essential ingredient that gives tonic its bitter taste. In small amounts, quinine is okay. But: At-home bartenders now can purchase cinchona bark, the base from which quinine is made, allowing them to make their own potentially stronger tonic syrups. Caution: These homemade tonics may contain very high doses of quinine, which can lead to quinine poisoning and symptoms such as a rash, ringing in the ears and possibly even blindness.
Dry ice and liquid nitrogen: You might be tempted to use dry ice or liquid nitrogen to impress guests with cocktails that have a fog effect. These ingredients also can hyper-chill beverages. When ingested, both liquid nitrogen and dry ice can be fatal…and if these ingredients come in contact with your skin, they can cause serious burns.
Healthy Cocktail Recipes
A little bait and switch is all that’s needed to make healthy, safe cocktails. Here are two of my favorite classic recipes that are full of flavor…
Negroni. Combine the following ingredients in an old-fashioned glass…
1 ounce Campari
1 ounce sweet vermouth
1 ounce gin
Add ice and stir. Garnish with an orange peel by twisting it over the cocktail and then adhering it to the side of the glass…or you can drop it into the liquid.
Health benefits: Campari increases protein digestion and mineral absorption while reducing gas and bloating. Sweet vermouth, a fortified and aromatized wine, may reduce blood pressure, aid digestion, reduce inflammation and boost your immune system. Gin is a digestive aid, and because most gin is made with juniper berries, it is nutrient-rich. It also contains antioxidants that attack free radicals in the bloodstream caused by pollutants.
Hemingway Daiquiri. Add the following ingredients to a cocktail shaker…
0.5 ounce lime juice
0.5 ounce grapefruit juice
0.5 ounce maraschino liqueur
1.5 ounces unaged rum
Add ice. Shake until cold. Fine-strain into a cocktail coupe (a stemmed glass with a broad, shallow bowl). Garnish with a lime wedge.
Health benefits: Lime and grapefruit juices are high in vitamin C, antioxidants that boost the immune system. Grapefruit juice also can aid heart health by reducing blood pressure. Using maraschino liqueur (as opposed to the traditionally used simple syrup made with sugar) reduces the added sugars in the cocktail. And rum reduces cholesterol, providing benefits for the heart.
Healthy Mocktail Recipes
Don’t want to consume alcohol? No problem. You still can join in cocktail hour with these refreshing recipes…
Basil Lemon Fizz. In a cocktail shaker filled with ice, combine…
1 ounce lemon juice
1 ounce honey syrup (1:1 honey:water)
4 muddled (crushed) basil leaves
Fill the rest of the shaker with soda water. Shake and fine-strain into a Collins glass. Garnish with a basil leaf.
Health benefits: This tasty mocktail is packed with vitamin C from the lemon juice and has all-natural sugars from the honey. You also get an excellent aroma and flavor from the basil, which has antioxidant qualities. And the drink is low-calorie, since it’s comprised mainly of soda water.
1.5 ounces lime juice
1 ounce agave nectar
2 ounces ginger beer
Shake lime juice and agave nectar with ice. Strain into a Collins glass over ice and add ginger beer.
Health benefits: This easy-to-make mocktail is loaded with vitamin C to boost the immune system. Agave nectar offers all-natural sugars and anti-inflammatory properties.