Low calorie! Less than 1 gram of sugar! Gluten-free! While these phrases are commonly plastered on food packaging, it's now not unusual to find wine and spirits brands touting these attributes.
Nowadays, the talk is less about the body of a wine and more about what alcohol is doing to your body. Recent data show wine sales are declining, and many point to the wellness trend pervasive among millennials as the cause. In response, brands are making claims about the health properties of their beverages as a way to attract consumers. But health researchers and scientists are raising concerns about these claims.
"I think in general, when [brands] have these health claims on these products, it takes away from the important fact that you're still ingesting alcohol," says Lisa Fucito, associate professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine, who focuses on tobacco and alcohol addiction.
"No matter how many other healthy things you try to put in something, you can't undo the fact that there's alcohol in there. And alcohol, at the end of the day, is the most dangerous part of what people will be exposed to."
Wine is still one of the few consumables on store shelves that don't require a nutrition label or ingredient list. What many wine drinkers don't know is that there are over 50 Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau-approved additives that can be used in a wine, because companies are not required to disclose them.
Napa-based Atlas Wine Co. is one company that voluntarily lists the components in its wines. For its new product, Oro Bello Light, it takes this notion of transparency one step further with a nutrition label that includes calories, carbohydrates and fat, as well as ingredients. "We send the wine to the FDA-approved lab, exactly like you do for food," says Alexandre Remy, managing partner and winemaker at Atlas Wine. "I found that my marketing strategy against the big guys was to disclose as much information as possible."
Oro Bello Light also differs from the company's other wines in that it is lower in alcohol and calories — about 9.2% ABV (alcohol by volume) and 85 calories per serving — which Remy says is achieved through new de-alcoholization technology. In addition, it's packaged in a can, the wine trend of the moment. "The overall concept is lower alcohol, lower calories and light packaging. So it's all light, light, light," he says.
Remy acknowledges that Oro Bello Light is meant to appeal to health enthusiasts, but more than that, he sees the wine as an entry point for casual consumers into better wines. He notes that craft beer and spirits sales are on the rise, but wine still has "dust on its shoulder" to a younger generation of drinkers. By showing how wine fits into a lifestyle, he hopes his brand could help be "the bridge between the first wine to the great wines of the world."
While Oro Bello is trying to disrupt the wine industry, which can be staunch in its traditions, the brand Gem & Bolt intentionally taps into the traditions of another popular spirit: mezcal. Founded by artists AdrinAdrina and Elliott Coon, Gem & Bolt, produced by a fourth-generation distiller in Oaxaca, Mexico, is distilled with damiana. The herb is touted for its aphrodisiac and antidepressant properties. For the duo, who grew up learning about the medicinal properties of plants, damiana's inclusion seemed a natural fit for their spirit.
However, they are very cautious when talking about the shrub's properties. "We call it a 'heart opener,' " says Coon. "One of the things it's most known for, but we don't lean on too much, is aphrodisiac properties. We have to walk a careful line, because we're not interested in prophesying or claiming any particular properties that our mezcal is going to bestow upon you. But we can tell you what damiana does and allow people to have their own experiences and decide for themselves."
Mezcal already has a reputation in the wellness community as being a "pure" spirit, because its sole ingredient is the agave plant, so it's no surprise that health enthusiasts have come to Gem & Bolt in a way that Coon calls organic. "People are more aware of what they're putting into their body and the story behind the products," she says.
Coon says they do little proactive marketing toward the wellness community and instead respond to requests, such as pouring the mezcal after spin classes.
Gem & Bolt may tread lightly with its health claims, but LifeVine points out that its wines have less than 1 gram of sugar and received TTB approval to make that statement. In general, most dry wines contain almost no sugar, but LifeVine is one of the few brands to identify this as a selling point with today's sugar-averse diets.
More boldly, LifeVine says that its wines contain 25 percent more antioxidants than other wines. According to Nichole Simpson, executive vice president of sales and marketing of LifeVine parent company Integrated Beverage Group, the brand's commitment to not using pesticides in the vineyards and sustainable farming contributes to these higher levels of antioxidants. LifeVine has the TTB-approved "Certified Pesticide-Free" on the label.
While there is some evidence that sustainable farming increases levels of the antioxidant-like resveratrol — vines under stress from disease threats produce more resveratrol as immunity — the process and actual amounts produced are still under review by researchers. When pressed for more information, Simpson says, "We partner with a third-party analytical lab for category testing to ensure our antioxidant levels are higher. The process by which they do this is proprietary."
Chris Gerling, a researcher with the Department of Food Science at Cornell University, is skeptical. "People who have really good data would usually trumpet that from the hills. People who have that information and can make a chart would show you a chart," says Gerling, who specializes in wine and distilled spirits.
Furthermore, he points to studies that show one would need to consume anywhere from 505 to 2,762 liters of red wine a day (that's anywhere from 673 to 3,682 standard-size bottles) to meet the recommended 1g per day dosage of resveratrol, which some claim boosts heart health.
Fucito, the alcohol addiction researcher, adds, "I think that when you make these other health claims, you're potentially trying to attract people to use your product, and encourage them that the use is somehow safer. What that can end up doing is helping people justify that they can drink more of something."
Shana Clarke is a freelance wine, sake and cocktail journalist who regularly contributes to Wine Enthusiast, Fortune and Hemispheres and is the wine editor for inside.com. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @ShanaSpeaksWine and see more of her work on www.shanaspeakswine.com.