By swapping even a few of your boozy drinks for mocktails, you are making a choice that may benefit your health! But, not all alcohol-free drinks are created equal. When it comes to mocktails, there are two main components to be mindful of: added sugar and juice.
What is added sugar, and how much should I have?
Added sugars are not naturally found in foods; instead, they are added during processing. Check the ingredient list of a packaged product, and you may find added sugar under many names: dextrose, brown rice syrup, high fructose corn syrup, etc. Natural sweeteners like honey, agave nectar, maple syrup, coconut sugar, and molasses are still considered sources of added sugar even though they are less processed. Bottom line: sugar is sugar.
Added sugars easily sneak into our diets, especially our drinks. Cocktails and mocktails often contain different forms of sugar, including simple syrup, soda or tonic water, ginger beer, or conventional white sugar. We’ve seen some mocktail recipes that contain as much as 1 ounce of sweetener in a single drink serving. That’s 2 tablespoons, or 6 teaspoons, of sugar per serving—and that’s not including sugars from other ingredients, such as juice or soda!
One ounce may not sound like a lot, but how does this compare to the guidelines on added sugar intake? The 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting added sugar to less than 10% of calories. For someone consuming 2,000 calories a day, this is less than 50 grams per day, or 12 teaspoons (1 teaspoon = 4 grams sugar = 16 calories). The American Heart Association (AHA) recommendations are more stringent: added sugar consumption should be limited to 6 teaspoons a day for women and 9 teaspoons for men. Using the example above, just one drink could put you at or close to the maximum recommended intake of added sugar for the day!
Data suggests that Americans are consuming too much added sugar. For example, in 2017-2018, the average intake of added sugars for adults over the age of 20 years old was 17 teaspoons per day (19 for men, 15 for women) .
Minimizing added sugars is important for several reasons. Like alcohol, they are often considered “empty calories” that provide little to no nutritional value. Added sugar either displaces more nutrient-dense sources of calories or contributes to excess calorie intake, which could, in turn, lead to weight gain. Furthermore, both added sugars and refined grains are more likely to elevate blood sugar levels than fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, which contain fiber. Fiber slows digestion and absorption of nutrients, namely glucose, into the bloodstream. Thus, fiber-containing foods are less likely to cause a spike in blood sugar.
Are sugar substitutes better?
Sugar substitutes, or non-nutritive sweeteners (NNS), are commonly used to add a sweet taste to food or drinks with few to no calories. NNS can be categorized into two groups— artificial (e.g. Splenda, Sweet N Low) and natural (e.g. Stevia, monk fruit).
These sweeteners may be sugar-free, but this doesn’t mean that they are “healthy” . NNS are up to 150 to 700 times sweeter than regular sugar. Frequent use of these sweeteners can overstimulate your taste receptors, meaning you may find naturally sweet foods, like fruit, less appealing and, therefore, may need more sweetness to satisfy you. What’s more, recent research seems to suggest that NNS may impact the gut microbiome .
On the other hand, smart use of NNS can help reduce the intake of added sugar. Overall, the consensus seems to be that occasionally enjoying these sweeteners is perfectly OK.
Is fruit juice basically soda?
In short, no. Most Americans do not eat enough fruits and vegetables and instead rely on 100% fruit juices to meet their micronutrient needs. Fruit juice is convenient, inexpensive, and contains antioxidants and other non-nutritive plant components, such as polyphenols, that may be beneficial for health. However, juice consumption is controversial because it is high in natural sugar without the benefit of the fiber naturally present in whole fruits. Note that juice cocktails, nectars, and other juices with added sugars do not fall under this umbrella and should be limited.
Health professionals are divided on whether drinking juice is “healthy,” but research suggests that moderate intake of 100% fruit juice is not associated with an increased risk of weight gain or chronic disease . A recent systematic review and meta-analysis of thirteen prospective cohort studies found that, in contrast to sugar-sweetened beverages (i.e. soda), 100% fruit juice consumption may exhibit a U-shaped relationship with metabolic syndrome. In other words, this analysis suggests that 3-5 ounces of juice may have a protective effect in the context of metabolic syndrome, while intake in excess of this may have a negative effect. As with many areas in nutrition, more research is needed.
7 tips for adding sweetness and flavor to drinks while minimizing added sugar and juice:
1. Limit sodas and tonic water. If you choose to use these, be sure to check the Nutrition Facts label and look for brands with lower sugar content, if possible, and be mindful of how much you are consuming.
2. Use whole fruits as much as possible to add flavor. Simply muddle fruit to extract the juice. If you do not strain your drink, you will reap the benefits of the fiber in the fruit as well! Or, you can make blended cocktails using frozen fruit and dates for added sweetness.
3. When choosing juices, be sure to look for 100% juice and avoid juice cocktails and nectars. Pomegranate and cranberry juices are particularly high in antioxidants. Try to limit juice to a few ounces per drink. Coconut water adds natural sweetness to drinks and serves as a good base for mocktails.
4. Fresh herbs and spices are a great way to add flavor and fragrance. Fresh ginger adds a “zesty” flavor and a bite to drinks.
5. When choosing a kombucha, always double-check the sugar content.
6. We prefer to use small quantities of natural sweeteners, namely honey and agave nectar, in our mocktails when we were not able to add sweetness with fresh fruits, dates, or juices. Agave has a neutral flavor, while honey has a more distinct flavor.
Nutritionally speaking, there is not much difference between these “natural” sweeteners and white sugar. We tested a few of our recipes with monk fruit sweetener, if using NNS aligns better with your health goals. When adding sugar, aim low and increase quantities as needed.
7. Like cocktails, enjoy mocktails in moderation!
Need healthy mocktail recipes and inspiration? Then grab our book Drinking for Two: Nutritious Mocktails for the Mom-to-Be!