A pinned reel on the @the_tequila_wanderer Instagram account posits six reasons why tequila is the “healthiest” spirit. Nic Soglanich, the jacked and glowingly tanned agave disciple and former pro golfer behind the account, calls some of these “scientific,” like that tequila is low-calorie, containing as little as 69 calories per serving (true, though closer to 97 per shot, per the USDA), that it lowers blood sugar and cholesterol (unproven), and promotes a healthy gut microbiome (unproven). Other claims — that tequila cures the common cold, for instance — he admits are “less easy to explain.”

Soglanich is far from alone here. Fitness gurus, wellness tribes, and mainstream health-conscious publications from Men’s Health to Goop have all extolled tequila as the healthiest spirit — purer and cleaner, ideal if you’re on a diet or don’t want to wake up with a hangover. George Clooney took the latter to new heights when he claimed to have created a hangover-free tequila in Casamigos, which sold a staggering 2.3 million 9-liter cases in 2022, per Shanken News Daily data.

Honestly, who doesn’t want to believe these things are true? That drinking alcohol is not only fun but can help our gut function and drop our blood pressure, instead of what it actually does: tax our livers and increase our risk for multiple cancers, no matter how little we consume. And who’s to argue with someone who reports they feel better drinking a few tequila sodas instead of, say, a bottle of red wine? The bigger problem with this stew of contrary opinions and shakily supported health claims is that it ignores the large pink elephant in the room.

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“It’s important to understand that alcohol really can’t be a ‘healthy’ drink,” says Seattle-based registered dietitian nutritionist Ginger Hultin. “It has a proven link to some cancers and it only is negative to the liver. [World Health Organization] recommendations came out a few years ago, saying, Guess what? No alcohol is best.”

And not just for physical health, mind you; they also cited the negative outcomes we’re even less willing to discuss: violence, crimes, accidents, and abuse. “Some alcohols may be ‘better’ than others in some ways, but none are health promoting,” Hultin says.

We make all kinds of choices that aren’t great for our health: eating too much processed food and fast food because it’s less expensive, convenient, and tasty — which, combined with too little physical activity, has sent U.S. obesity levels soaring to nearly 42 percent as of 2020. And in spite of mountains of evidence about its dangers, cigarette smoking remains the leading cause of preventable disease, disability, and death in the United States. Of course, as with smoking, the overwhelming majority of people wouldn’t go so far as to say they drink alcohol to actively better their health. Regardless, tequila has managed to successfully position itself as the lesser evil at best, and at worst, healthy booze.

Clickbait, Science, and Cognitive Dissonance

In a culture of clicks as currency, it’s not entirely our fault that we cling to the healthy potential of certain booze. As often happens with murky claims, the splashy headlines don’t hold up to the more research-backed body copy. Consider this 2014 CBS News article, in which the head-turning headline suggests that overweight and diabetic folks might benefit from drinking tequila. As the piece goes on to report, this claim is based on a study in which scientists fed mice (ahem, not people) a normal diet and supplemented their drinking water with agavins, a natural carbohydrate found in agave plants. The mice that consumed the agavins ate less overall and had lower blood glucose levels.

“The most important thing to note about these results is that it was an animal study, so we have a long way to go before understanding what it means for humans,” says Hultin. More glaringly, however, the mice weren’t given tequila. “That’s a complete overstep and very wrong interpretation of the literature. Making the reach that you can give mice a type of fiber and transfer that to telling people with diabetes to drink tequila is not even safe.”

Agavins are a type of non-digestible carbohydrate known as fructans. Agavin-containing foods (others include cabbage, onions, and pistachios) have some proven health benefits, like promoting the growth of beneficial bacteria and regulating blood sugar. This may include drinks, Hultin says, noting that other non-digestible foods like the sugar alcohols of plant fibers have been shown not to raise blood sugars. “But what we have to take into account is the alcohol piece,” she says. “Alcohol is not good for the gut microbiome. What are we negating with the actual introduction of alcohol?”

“When it comes to tequila, the ‘healthy’ image is also sometimes conflated with the growing chorus of brands touting their tequilas as additive-free.”

That’s how cognitive dissonance works, though. The mental discomfort that results from holding conflicting attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors might cause us to overreach or oversimplify in order to shine up alcohol’s image in our minds. Take the “improved blood circulation” claim. Technically, all alcohol has mild blood-thinning properties, meaning, “You ‘could’ reach to ‘therefore, it improves circulation,’” Hultin says. “However, I wouldn’t phrase it that way myself.”

Hammering the nail in the proverbial coffin, Hultin sent me another, far more depressing study shortly after our conversation in which a group of eight young, healthy men drank tequila every day for a month and had poorer health outcomes, including raised blood sugar levels.

Should I even bother bursting our last, tiny, sparkling Champagne bubble of hope — that there is such a thing as hangover-free booze? There’s not; only drinking less and hydrating more. “Alcohol is processed by the liver through a variety of enzymes and pathways,” Hultin says. “It’s toxic to the body and so the liver has to prioritize metabolizing and neutralizing it. There’s no way around this process.”

Some liquors like brandy, rum, and — yes — tequila, contain chemical compounds called congeners that can actually contribute to making hangovers worse. Sorry, George Clooney.

The Clooney Effect notwithstanding, younger generations seem to be reckoning better with the large, stinking heap of bad health news surrounding the demon drink; studies have shown that millennials and Gen Zers may be drinking less than older generations. And yet, the myth of “healthier” alcohol persists. Hultin points to one powerful concept that captured Americans’ imaginations in the 1990s called the French paradox, which originally claimed that French people’s relatively lower rates of heart disease despite diets higher in rich, fatty foods could be attributed to red wine consumption.

Red wine contains resveratrol, a compound believed to have anti-hypertensive effects. Here, though, the (maddening) reason for the cardiovascular benefit is more likely alcohol’s mild blood-thinning effects, plus the fact that moderate to low alcohol consumption can raise good cholesterol levels. Couple that with the antioxidants in red wine and you’ve got a healthy powerhouse, right? Well, yes, if you drink about half a glass per day. Any more and said benefits disappear.

That Additive-Free Glow

When it comes to tequila, the “healthy” image is also sometimes conflated with the growing chorus of brands touting their tequilas as additive-free. Just about half of Americans believe that additives pose serious risk to their health — even if these ingredients have been generally recognized as safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for their intended uses.

“The bigger problem here is that labeling laws allow brands to intentionally omit information — a big deal for the 51 percent who think additives are dangerous.”

At least 70 percent of tequilas sold contain additives, according to the app Tequila Matchmaker, whose database comprises some 2,880 brands. El Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT), or the Tequila Regulatory Council, permits up to 1 percent of that 100 percent agave spirit to consist of additives without requiring any change to the bottle’s label. Meaning that if a consumer picks up a bottle of tequila and reads “distilled from 100 percent Blue Weber agave in the Jalisco highlands,” said booze might also quietly contain additives to improve its color, flavor, texture or consistency. The CRT permits four types of additives, in fact: glycerin, caramel coloring, oak extract, and jarabe or sugar-based syrup.

The bigger problem here is that labeling laws allow brands to intentionally omit information — a big deal for the 51 percent who think additives are dangerous. It’s fairly easy to see, then, how a tequila brand calling out its spirit as additive-free more for quality and purity of process reasons might be considered healthier by those who associate health with cleaner labels. The same could be said for vodkas touting themselves as gluten-free — when (non-flavored) vodkas are in fact safe for celiacs — in order to capitalize on the frenzy surrounding the gluten-free lifestyle.

“Tequila has always been positioned as a ‘healthy’ spirit, in my mind, because the process to create it is very well known and there is a lot more emphasis on additives in tequila and additive-free options,” says Aron Marquez, co-founder (with Mexican professional golfer Abraham Ancer) of one such additive-free brand, Flecha Azul. “Many tequilas produced today have added sugars or coloring. We wanted to make sure that Flecha Azul was additive-free and tasted like the tequila Abraham and I were used to drinking growing up [in Mexico].”

He says tequilas made solely with 100 percent Blue Weber agave, yeast, and water, are “cleaner” — which is partly what attracted actor Mark Wahlberg to come on as a principal investor. “When he came on, he made the switch from red wine to tequila because of the cleaner ingredients,” Marquez adds.

Wahlberg is also a jacked and glowing celebrity, whose public-facing choices exist to augment a carefully cultivated image.

Drink as Self-Expression

In the “The Secret Life of Groceries,” author Benjamin Lorr points to a larger cultural shift that might help explain the persistence of the tequila health halo: that food and drink offer a blank page for self-expression, mostly free of the flashy baggage that comes with material goods.

“Everyone is looking for ways of expressing themselves,” Lorr tells me. “Retail is a place of personal expression, but most ways of expressing ourselves through material goods feel really gaudy and kind of out of fashion. Food represents this kind of blank canvas that bypasses the squirm of material goods. It’s become a magnificent way of expressing all these attributes of who we are: someone who likes to indulge, be an athlete, show off their kinship or ancestry. That’s exactly what’s happening with tequila.”

Tequila fits the bill nicely as a sophisticated beverage with a rich alternative history, that was “ripe for a rebrand” among consumers who’d reduced it to rotgut for college dudes slinging shots on Cinco de Mayo.

For somebody indoctrinated in the Crossfit or Paleo world who still wants to drink, tequila that’s made from lower-calorie agave and pure of process gets the “healthy” stamp of approval, however dubious. Those of us who aren’t SoulCycle tribe members or hardcore Goopers might take a little solace in knowing that even the health-obsessed will partake in a few drinks from time to time. As Lorr points out, the truth is “a distant second” to the value we glean from making choices that we feel reflect our values and add dimension to our projected identities.

Maybe we really do believe that drinking additive-free tequila will make a difference to our overall health, or that a few glasses of red wine are good for us — (updated) research be damned! Lorr warns that dispensing judgment on these seemingly contradictory decisions is unfair.

“It’s easy to make fun of a person who puts non-fat creamer next to full-fat ice cream in their shopping cart,” he says. “Don’t scorn them. They’re enacting some value in those choices.”

Like that bag of chips that still contains 120 percent of our daily recommended sodium even if it’s additive- free, we might drink tequila for a slew of other reasons besides health: Because we love the flavor or the story it tells; to help us relax; to belong or to stand out; to remember that one time in Guadalajara, or to forget. What we trade in turn is as relative as it is convoluted. On the whole, less alcohol is unquestionably better, “but you can’t simplify it down to a headline,” Hultin says. “You can’t say, drinking tequila ‘may’ be beneficial. It’s so much more complex.”

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