Real Talk: How Freaked Should I Be About The Sugar Content In Alcohol?

Posted: Nov 05, 2019

The wellness world has a complicated relationship with alcohol. On the one hand, many experts say alcohol in moderation is good for health. (Hey, it is part of the Mediterranean diet.) On the other, some say that heart healthy glass of wine is secretly full of sugar—and everybody *knows* how bad sugar is for you, right?

It’s a challenge to know what exactly is in any alcoholic drink since the labeling laws vary so much that it can make the beverage category as a whole seem like a nutritional Wild West. 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 affect 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 wine 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 sulfates. (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.

By Emily Laurence 
November 4, 2019

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