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‘Healthy‘ alcohol whets whistles of the growing number of health-conscious drinkers

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Spiked Seltzer (left) offers customers looking for a “healthier” buzz; DuneSurfer Desert Beer (center) has a 2 percent ABV and 60 calories; Frey Vineyards (right) launched the nation’s first organic wine.Spiked Seltzer/DuneSurfer Desert/Frey Vineyards

While healthful living and alcohol consumption haven't generally been synonymous, a spate of “healthy” alcoholic beverages is starting to hit the market. From post-workout beers to spiked seltzer to gluten-free brews, these products are trying to make imbibing synonymous with clean living.

While many of these products are sold as “healthy” or "natural"-- does it meant that these concoctions really any better for you, or are they just savvy marketing gimmicks?

Studies have long shown that moderate alcohol consumption has potential health benefits, including being good for the heart and circulatory system and offering protection against type 2 diabetes and gallstones.

“Sparkling waters, waters and healthier beverages are totally on the upswing. I don’t think it’s a trend that’s going to stop. Given the continual increase of attention on public health, you continue to see a growth and demand for a lighter, better-for-you drink.”

- Spiked Seltzer co-founder Dave Holmes

“Alcohol is the perfect example of something that is best used in moderation. It has health benefits, but it can also be very detrimental to your health,” says Dr. Mike Roussell, author, speaker and nutritional consultant.

Last month, the announcement of Lean Machine brew garnered lots of buzz. The Canadian drink (which hasn’t hit the market yet) is formulated with L-Glutamine, protein, sodium, potassium, vitamin C and zinc, and it stands at 77 calories, significantly less than most other brews on the market. Dubbed a “recovery ale,” it’s designed to replenish the fluids lost during a workout.

This comes on the heels of a study that showed beer’s dehydrating effects could be canceled out by changing its electrolyte content (done by reducing the level of alcohol and adding salt)--which Lean Machine also provides.

Spiked Seltzer is another new market addition. This super-light tasting beverage was designed for athletes and others looking for a light, “healthier” buzz. Made with only water, yeast, natural sugars and citrus oil, the brew has been likened to La Croix carbonated water, says co-founder Dave Holmes. The drink has no alcohol bite, Holmes adds, and is all natural. Yet, it has an alcohol by volume (ABV) of 6 percent, about the same as a Bud Light.

“It tastes very, very similar to a lime-flavored seltzer water,” Holmes says. While currently available only in parts of New York and Connecticut, the brand will be rolling out to other areas of the East Coast shortly.

Yet the future of these drinks is unclear. Consider Bethanny Frankel’s much-hyped Skinnygirl line, which has seen better days. Beam, its parent company, reported in February that sales of Skinnygirl dipped 26 percent last year, making it the worst performing of its brands.

Those drinks, though, are artificially sweetened and marketed solely to women. Many of the newer drink choices offer a more natural taste profile, are gender-neutral, and tap into the growing demand for alternative beverages as dietary needs change.  

Spiros Malandrakis, senior alcoholic drinks analyst with the market research firm Euromonitor, is nonetheless skeptical of the long-term viability of any alcohol billed “healthy.”

“People do not drink alcohol to feel healthier,” he says. “In any case, I think the health aspects are historically associated with moderation, which is something that tends to be forgotten.”

Rather than a focus on “healthy” options, Malandrakis sees the trend moving toward craft producers making drinks with locally sourced ingredients in small batches.  These products often have less preservatives and are made with fresher ingredients.

Another new market addition on the healthy bandwagon is DuneSurfer Desert Beer, a soon-to-launch brand in the U.K. (and later, they hope, in the U.S.).

Co-founder John Hunt says his product is a response to consumers looking for natural food and drinks. The beer is billed as a tangy, light lager with goji, acai berry and yuzu fruit extracts, plus fresh herbs and minerals.  It also has just 2 percent ABV per bottle and has just 60 calories.

“Drinks seems unable to cross the ‘alcohol divide’, i.e., drinks are either alcoholic or non alcoholic, whilst consumers face an ‘alcohol dilemma’ i.e., they want the sociability, the adult taste and sessionability of alcoholic drinks without all of the downsides,” Hunt told FoxNews.com in an email. “The alternatives (soft drinks, flavored waters, sports drinks) don’t taste good or are too sweet or are simply boring.”

Holmes agrees. Given the recent proposal to ban large sugary sodas  in New York City, for example, he thinks the public is seeking less sugar and more nutritional value.

“Sparkling waters, waters and healthier beverages are totally on the upswing. I don’t think it’s a trend that’s going to stop. Given the continual increase of attention on public health, you continue to see a growth and demand for a lighter, better-for-you drink.”

Roussell says for more people calories is usually the biggest issue with alcohol. “These calories come primarily in the form of sugar-laden beverages that are mixed with alcohol.”

He advises opting for calorie-free mixers and minimal amounts of juice, or spirits served on the rocks.

“If you have a couple favorite beers, I would recommend that you take a minute to look their calorie content up online. Not all ‘healthier’ alcohol options are necessarily healthier. Gluten-free beer doesn’t provide any added health benefit unless you have a gluten allergy.”

Electrolyte-infused beer, which purportedly doesn’t cause a hangover, may be a good choice for the health conscious, he says. The beer has compounds commonly used in sports drinks and contains less alcohol, providing a third more hydration than a normal beer.

However, as with anything, moderation is key.

Wine makers, too, aren’t immune to the changing the way the drink is made. Mendocino County’s Frey Vineyards launched in the 1980s as the nation’s first organic producer and has seen a massive increase in demand, says assistant winemaker Eliza Frey.

“We get a lot of phone calls from people whose doctors have recommended that they drink and eat organic products,” she says.

“As we get more and more evidence of the pitfalls of the standard American diet – heavily processed foods, antibiotics in our dairy – as people learn more, it just makes sense that they’d want to feed themselves and their families the highest quality products available,” she says.

And as more people turn toward natural and organic foods, beverages will likely continue to fall in line.

As far as Euromonitor’s Malandraki is concerned, consumers are more interested in minimizing the negative effects of alcohol and seeking out authentic products than worrying about calorie counts.

“The natural conclusion of this authenticity narrative would be like the craft revolution we see across the West,” he says. “It’s about being able to trace your product, buying from small scale entrepreneurs and helping the local economy. It’s not about taking ingredients out; it’s more about natural, authentic products.”