Despite being marketed as a “healthy” product, hard seltzers are not notably healthier than other alcoholic beverages.
The typical hard seltzer contains 4–7% alcohol and about 100 calories, which is comparable to a light beer.
While reduced calories offer a slight health benefit, hard seltzers are still alcoholic beverages, and patients should be advised to drink them in moderation—or not at all.
As hard seltzers grow in popularity, controversy about these products is brewing—particularly about their promise of being healthier than other alcoholic drinks.
Although they have lower calories than most other alcoholic beverages, they aren’t truly “healthy,” despite advertising suggesting so. As with all other alcoholic drinks, patients should be advised that hard seltzers are best enjoyed in moderation.
What are hard seltzers?
Hard seltzer consists of alcohol and seltzer (carbonated water). The ethanol usually comes from fermented sugar plus flavorings, such as fruit juice or extracts.
Popular hard seltzer brands include White Claw, Mike's Hard Lemonade, and Smirnoff Seltzer.
In terms of alcohol content, most hard seltzers contain between 4%–7% alcohol by volume. Light beers typically have about 4% alcohol. Some hard seltzers, however, can contain far more alcohol, with one brand, Four Loko, clocking in at 14%.
Calorie-wise, the typical hard seltzer contains about 100 calories, which is comparable to a light beer.
Are they really healthier?
Nutritionist Anastasia Climan, RDN, CD-N, provided her take to MDLinx on the health value of hard seltzers.
"Hard seltzers are healthier than many other alcoholic beverages, but that doesn't mean they're a health-promoting drink."
— Anastasia Climan, RDN, CD-N
“Most hard seltzers have minimal sugar and a lower alcohol content than cocktails, wine, or regular beer,” Climan continued. “They're also gluten-free, making them a good option for people who have a gluten intolerance.”
Hard seltzers can be a healthier option than high-calorie, hard-liquor concoctions. Calorie counts are determined by alcohol content, and many hard seltzers have less alcohol and lower calories. If a person drinks hard seltzer in moderation, it can even be a healthier choice than drinking beer in moderation, according to University of Chicago Medicine.
Still, carbohydrates are sugars, sugars are calories, and calories in excess are unhealthy. Moreover, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), all types of alcohol increase cancer risk including that of the colon, breast, mouth, liver, and esophagus, with even small amounts of regular alcohol intake predicting breast and esophageal cancers.
The AICR recommended consuming no alcohol at all, and those who do drink should keep it at one drink a day for women and two (at most) for men.
Another general issue with alcohol is that it is a diuretic that can lead to dehydration. The alcohol in hard seltzer, for example, leads to excess urination, according to University of Chicago Medicine. Therefore, hard seltzers are not refreshing or rehydrating, regardless of what any advertisement says.
Various hard seltzers brand themselves as healthy and point to low-calorie counts as proof. They also use buzzwords such as ancient grains, natural, and organic, as well as offering fruity flavors, according to the AICR. Fruity flavors, however, are not real fruit, but the mention of fruit can seem healthy to consumers.
Although there is little research on hard seltzers, some intriguing studies have been done on their marketing. Dutch researcher Nicole Woolderink expressed some thoughts on the matter in a 2022 research paper.
"Hard seltzer brands can possibly communicate the inherent properties of hard seltzer to health-conscious people by illustrating a slim body on the product packaging."
— Nicole Woolderink
“This study showed that the congruency between design elements leads to more positive evaluations regardless of the collective symbolic meaning the design elements convey,” Woolderink wrote.
The branding of hard seltzers seems to be driving demand. According to Veylinx, a consumer insights platform that uses behavioral research to shed light on purchasing habits, consumers find a variety of hard seltzer features appealing, including high or low amounts of alcohol, vitamins, energy, immunity, sustainable packaging, and CBD.
The researchers found that consumers attributed credibility, premium quality, and uniqueness to all eight brands tested. They found that White Claw had the highest demand, with consumers willing to pay top dollar for it.
False advertisements by hard-seltzer brands have drawn the ire of consumer-advocacy groups including the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and the Consumer Federation of America (CFA).
In a press release, the CFA specifically called out Molson for its Vizzy Hard Seltzer, which is advertised as containing the antioxidant vitamin C.
The CSPI and CFA stressed that alcohol is an example of empty calories and not a source of nutrients. Instead, alcohol can impair vitamin and nutrient metabolism. They wanted the FDA to take action—especially because the FDA has advised against the fortification of alcoholic beverages.
Both organizations hoped that the FDA will forbid nutrient content claims by alcohol companies—even if the drinks are fortified. They also objected to the fortification of snack foods and carbonated drinks with vitamins.
Tips on tippling
For those who drink any type of alcohol, moderation is key. Regarding hard seltzer, the AICR recommended limiting consumption to 15 fluid ounces of hard seltzers at 4% alcohol or 8.5 fluid ounces at 7%.
Other suggestions included diluting hard seltzers with non-alcoholic sparkling water, as well as adding frozen fruit chunks to lighten the drink. Non-alcoholic sparkling waters, soda water, and unsweetened teas were suggested as healthy alternatives.
The University of Chicago recommended that when choosing a hard seltzer, consumers should opt for lower-calorie options and check nutrition labels for those with the least carbohydrates and sugars.
Cut back on the sugar
Climan also advised choosing lower-sugar hard seltzers.
"It's a good idea to check the label before selecting which hard seltzer to buy."
— Anastasia Climan, RDN, CD-N
“Some varieties contain more sugar, alcohol, or additives than others,” Climan said. “Opt for brands flavored with natural flavor or 100% fruit juice. Avoid artificial sweeteners and aim for drinks with an alcohol content between 4% to 6% (steering clear of the 12% alcohol drinks). Also, don't fall for drinks enhanced with vitamins like vitamin C.”
"It's best to get your vitamins from a variety of nutritious foods, not from hard seltzer."
— Anastasia Climan, RDN, CD-N
What this means for you
Although hard seltzers may taste good and be lower in calories than other alcoholic beverages, they are not healthy. Deceptive advertising may convince consumers that with their fruity flavors and possible vitamin fortification, these drinks contribute to a well-balanced diet. Patients should be advised that hard seltzers typically contain about the calories and alcohol content of light beers, but they should check labels. As with all types of alcohol, moderation is key, with no more than one drink for women and up to two drinks for men per day.