Jun 28, 2011

Low calorie cocktail mixes: the truth behind the brand

Low-cal, or "skinny" cocktails are the quintessential drink for 20-something women and mid-life housewives, given most women like to drink and most women like to be skinny. However, my personal philosophy is if it sounds too good to be true, then it's too good to be true.

Come on. You know I'm right. Prime examples: Sketchers Shape-Ups, "healthy sweets," Marissa Miller's body (she's gorgeous, but I have a hard time finding her to be 100% au natural). Or when you have a huge closet full of Kate Bosworth's clothes... only to wake up from the dream, or when meeting Mr. Right to find out he's married... or gay. Alas, it's all too good to be true.

Disclaimer: While this blog may appear as if I remembered too much from alcohol.edu back in college,  this is not freehand knowledge, my friends. Terry Shanahan is the one who opened my eyes to Skinnygirl's marketing phenomenon, and through many hours of research, I'm (now) a connoisseur in the field of mixology. It's not like I knew how to calculate alcohol by volume off the top of my head, folks. Just had to make sure all of you don't start assuming I have a drinking problem. I just prefer to know everything about everything.


I've been focused on getting the healthiest I can be with the help of Terry Shanahan. As you all know, this man is my savior. Well, not exactly, but close -- he's made diet and exercise a religious experience of sorts, as he is my nutritionist and he's certainly provided several "Come to Jesus" moments regarding how terribly I was eating in the past. He's diverted my attention towards eating quality food, not counting calories, and focusing on a strong mix of cardio and strength training.

With all that being said, I started to chat with him about alcohol. Working in PR and events, a lot of my "work" revolves around drinking. We had a happy hour two weeks ago at the Four Seasons to network; of course all bevs were on the house. Every party I cover involves an open bar and some kind of alcohol or mixer to promote. And just being real here: drinking is a social activity. (Duh.) At my age, it's how we meet people since we no longer have school to introduce us to friends and boys. The bars have become our new social system. 

While I have a whole other blog I plan to dedicate to alcohol and how it wreaks havoc on our body (and, more importantly, a woman's body), I want to focus this blog on brands that are promoted to be low-calorie, but aren't cutting any corners when it comes to your weight.

Unfortunately, I'm not at liberty to name these cocktail brands, but you're all very familiar with them -- the popular "skinny cocktail" category of beverages. They claim to be "100 calories for a 4-ounce serving" at 25 proof (approximately 12% alcohol), and made with ingredients including the terms (but not limited to): organic, all-natural, agave nectar, etc.

Having talked to Terry about calories, sugar and the like, a red flag went off when I saw these ingredients in several popular "low cal" brands. These mixes are not going to make you skinny, or keep you skinny -- but they'll keep you lazy. You could easily make a more refreshing, healthier cocktail with a few simple ingredients than buying a pre-packaged product.
Let's break it down.

The real deal on agave nectar
Don't be fooled: agave nectar is not good for you. It's not even a natural sweetener. It's better than artificial sweeteners, but it's not a magical ingredient to spice up your sweet tooth and eliminate calories. To be blunt, it's high fructose corn syrup. 
Blue Agave tequila, or "Agave tequilana," originates from Jalisco, Mexico and is the base for this liquor, stemming from the agave plant. Agave nectar is extracted from the agave plant and creates aguamiel, which is comparable to sugarcane, which is then refined to make agave nectar.
Agave has a high percentage of carbohydrates, and in turn means there is a high percentage of fructose in the nectar, or syrup, when it's made.

What is it exactly?
The Cliffsnotes version of how agave syrup is made is as follows: it's extracted from the agave plant, filtered and heated to break down the carbs ("hydrolize polysaccharides") into simple sugars. The main polysaccharide (or carbohydrate molecule) in agave nectar is inulin or fructan, which creates fructose units, or in other words fructose or "fruit sugar."
Agave nectar is comprised mostly of fructose and glucose. These terms sound familiar because high fructose corn syrup is found primarily in soda. Glucose, in Greek, literally means "sweet."
While the glycemic index of agave nectar is less than regular table sugar (sucrose), it's still sugar and is just the same, if not worse than high fructose corn syrup -- something most people know to stay away from if they're trying to maintain a healthy diet.

All about fructose 
Fructose can wreak havoc on your liver, as it is a man-made sugar. Most think fructorse comes straight from fruit, but it's created when its refined, as stated above. Pairing agave it with alcohol can be detrimental. Terry states that consuming alcohol already creates hard work for your liver in order for it to detoxify your body, and since agave nectar is a hepatic ("liver") toxin, you can really do a number by combining the two.

Bottom line
Agave nectar = fructose & glucose = same as high fructose corn syrup = SUGAR. You might as well be drinking a whiskey and coke and call it a day!

Not a lot of "bang" for your buck
Most low cal mixes has weak proofs, or lower alcohol by volume per serving (below 15% or around 25-30 proof). For example, a standard 4 oz. margarita made with tequila, triple sec and lime juice, most sit at 30% alcohol by volume or 60 proof per serving, which is why (for women at least) you're feeling pretty buzzed after drink one and wanting to remove clothing after drink two. 

For reference, a standard margarita is made as follows:
- 2 oz. tequila (80 proof or 40% alcohol by volume -- 128 calories
- 1.15 oz. triple sec (70 proof or 35% alcohol by volume -- 75 calories)
- 0.85 oz. lime juice (4 calories)

To calculate how strong your margarita will be:
Multiply the .300 by 100 and you get a 30% alcohol by volume OR a 60 proof margarita, with 207 calories.

Popular "skinny" margaritas are only 6.35% alcohol by volume or approximately 13 proof per serving, assuming that 2 ounces of the mix is tequila and the other two ounces is the all natural ingredients they promote.

What's in this mix exactly?
Which, speaking of, you can't find an exact listing of ingredients for some of these mixes anywhere -- even on the bottle! All we know is from the website: it's made with agave nectar, blue agave tequila and "natural" ingredients. No dyes, no artificial flavors -- however, caramel color was added. Seems a tad bizarre, right? Note: reps for the brands were unable to be reached for comment at the time of this post.

Drink... and drink, and drink
Four ounces is about half a cup. To get any kind of buzz at 13 proof (yet it will still be minimal), you'll double this amount to about 8 ounces, or the size of a mini can of Diet Coke, which only brings you to 26 proof. You'll have at least two or three of these things, so right there you're already sitting pretty back at 400-600 calories, which defeats the purpose of a low calorie cocktail. It matches drinking one that was prepared at your favorite TexMex joint.  I know for myself personally that one marg from Yucatan Taco Stand or Cabo Cantina means I need one and only one, 300-500 calories or not. I don't need more than that, because the alcohol by volume of the tequila used is stronger.

Homemade is better
Bethenny Frankel's non-commercialized version of the margarita is less caloric and healthier for you.  I found online the original version from RHONY:
  • 2 oz. clear tequila (Sauza or clear premium)
  • 3 squeezed limes or a splash of fresh lime juice
  • splash of Cointreau, Grand Marnier or Triple Sec
This is the more realistic skinny girl's margarita. For starters, you're using higher-grade, 80 proof tequila with a bit of the Cointreau, Grand Mariner or Triple Sec, so you're not having to down sugary after sugary portion to get to a desired level of buzzed. Terry joked with me that the healthiest way to drink was with shots of straight liquor because it's made without sugary mixers and you're good to go after one. Obviously he doesn't recommend this, but you get the point. It's around 150 calories.

Then what the heck do I drink?
Terry also recommends that if you are going to drink (a key to losing weight is eliminating alcohol!),  purchase cocktails that use clear, premium liquors with soda water and citrus fruit. One bev I was recently introduced to is the Gimlet. It can be made with either gin or vodka, and while some places use Rose's lime juice, most muddle their limes, which makes it taste similar to a mojito in terms of freshness. The original recipe calls for four parts vodka (or gin), one part sweetened lime juice and some sugar or simple syrup, but here's a better-for-you version. Remember, these are 4 ounce servings!

Vodka Gimlet (165 calories)
  • 2 oz. vodka (145 calories)
  • 1 oz. soda water (0 calories)
  • 1 peeled, muddled lime (20 calories)
BAM. Soda water is zero calories, the limes bring a tang, and you don't have to worry about crazy caloric mixers and all that jazz. Just be sure to ask your bartender how they make it, or else they can include large amount of sugar, which isn't doing you any favors.

Greyhound (170 calories, depending on the type of juice you use)
  • 2 oz. vodka
  • 2 oz. grapefruit juice (25 calories -- organic from Trader Joe's)

The Low-Cal Mojito (122 calories -- check out the recipe here: thanks FitSugar!)
The mojito does include sugar, but a little sweetness won't kill you! Just don't have four or five.

And, my personal favorite, the Ciroc Obama (156 calories)
  • 2 oz. Ciroc Coconut (126 calories)
  • 2 oz. canned Dole pineapple juice (30 calories)
  • splash of soda (0 calories)

Sure, these beverages might have higher calories than brands that claim to be "100 calories for 4 ounces," but that's because they have more alcohol by volume, meaning you don't have to drink as many if you're looking for a nice, legal buzz. To achieve what you could with one of these cocktails, you'd need three (4 oz. servings) of the "skinny" margs! Do the math people -- can't deny the facts of life!

Not to mention these aren't loaded with tons of sugar. Also, it's interesting to note that 5 oz. of a "skinnier" alternative is 125 calories -- most bars serve in something bigger than a 4 oz. glass. By drink #3 you've hit 375 calories, when drinking two low-cal mojitos would only be 244; even the most caloric drink on the list, the Greyhound, puts you at 340 -- still 35 calories less than the skinny competition.

While low calorie cocktails have great intentions, it's best to stick to cocktails made with mimimal ingredients and aren't in pre-prepared packaging (tubs or bottles).

1 comment:

krysi said...

def love skinny cocktails, would def suggest looking up voli light vodkas cocktail recipes, I love their pink lemonade

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