Last year, Emily Suzanne Lever tweeted a succinct thesis of the millennial behavior: “everything I want to do is self care and everything I don’t want to do is emotional labor.” Life is hard. We’re burning out. It’s easy to make the ethical and moral justification come after the desire.
Food brands are quick to embrace this line of thinking. Fast food, alcohol, candy and other snacks have often been thought of as vices, and it’s the vendor’s job to convince customers that it’s okay, even good, to eat whatever unhealthy thing they happen to be peddling. And among those most willing to exploit our most selfish, and self-serving philosophies is the alcohol industry, which is now trying to brand beer, wine and liquor as “wellness” products. Some companies have advertised their booze as replenishing post-workout substances, while others have reapproached “low-calorie” marketing, or have leaned hard into natural ingredients. But why does faux concept of wellness sell alcohol? Why does it sell anything?
Business Insider reports that the alcohol industry is having a hard time capturing the millennial and Gen Z market, who, though they love their rose, are also spending less on alcohol than previous generations. There’s been an explosion in “mocktails” at high-end bars, the proliferation of Dry January, and obsession with seltzer that’s about as intense as any over craft beer. Also, the spread of legal cannabis and CBD (which has questionable effects but is extremely profitable), has made a wider variety of buzz-inducing substances available at the grocery store. Alcohol is no longer the most (sometimes) fun legal drug in town.
Though there have been “lite” beers for decades, Corona and Dogfish Head have recently launched new low-calorie beers, and Heineken is leaning heavily into marketing their non-alcoholic beer. To lure back younger customers, alcohol brands are turning to “wellness,” arguing that their products are a natural part of any healthy, balanced diet. Alcohol brands are also marketing drinks not only as something to share with friends, but as an important tool of workout recovery. “We invite you to nix those post-sweat sugary sports drinks and have a beer,” writes Sufferfest in copy for their new beer, Fastest Known Time. Beer is also becoming something to drink while you run, as Beermile races spread.
As seltzer has risen as the more virtuous version of soda, spiked seltzers are becoming the virtuous alcopop, with White Claw’s tagline “made pure,” and Bon & Viv advertising up front they’re gluten-free, sugar-free, and only 90 calories a can. There’s also Gem&Bolt, a mezcal made with damiana, an herb used in some traditional Mexican liquors that’s supposedly an “anti-depressant, mood regulator, and organ tonic,” according to the company’s founder. Wild considering if there’s one thing we know about alcohol, it’s that it’s a depressant. And natural wines have seen a boom in business, partially because they have fewer additives and “cleaner” ingredients, but also as BI points out, because they’re compatible with both the Paleo and Keto diets. FitVine, which sponsors athletes and name-drops Crossfit, calls itself “wine that champions the way you want to live a healthier life.”
This makes sense from a business perspective. “Wellness” is for financially secure people with time to spare — on their skin, on their bodies, and on their diets. Millennials with enough disposable income to douse themselves in serums will surely pay a little more for a protein-packed beer or a natural wine that’s supposed to give them the buzz they want, but leave them hangover free.
But the push toward rebranding certain types and brands of alcohol as “health” food highlights one of the biggest issues of the wellness industry — namely, that it’s meaningless at best and a scam at worst. Body positivity activists have been trying to decouple morality from food choices for decades, as labeling certain foods as “good” and others as “bad” exacerbates disordered eating. Writer Marie Southard Ospina wrote that her eating disorder was greatly affected by the language around food, which transfers to the people who eat it. “Plenty of thin people ate ‘bad’ foods. Plenty of fat ones ate ‘good’ ones. In fact, a lot of people’s body size seemed wholly irrelevant to their caloric intake.” But it didn’t matter. Eating cake was still a “guilty pleasure.”
When it comes to alcohol, it feels like we’re on a familiar side of a swinging pendulum. Red wine is supposed to be good for your heart, after all, so claims that alcohol could be good for you are not new. But beer is not necessarily a health food, and it’s not necessarily a vice. It’s just beer. It’s good that, as a society, many of us are being pushed to reconsider how and why we’re drinking, and that there are more options for people who choose not to partake, no matter the reason. But positioning alcohol as a tool to build a better, cleaner body is just the flip side of positioning it as a cool potion necessary for any adult party — either narrative makes it harder to have a healthy relationship with it.