Beware the halo effect: Low-sugar alcoholic drinks not so healthy

Big night out? Those low-sugar ciders aren't as heavenly for your health as you'd hoped.

Big night out? Those low-sugar ciders aren't as heavenly for your health as you'd hoped. Photo: Getty

Low-sugar booze. Sounds healthy. Like going on a diet, right?

Cancer Council Victoria researchers have found that low-sugar alcoholic drinks “may be creating a false sense of security among women”.

They suggest this “misconception might lead people to drink more”.

And there’s the trap: Excess alcohol consumption can increase the risk of weight gain and chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease.

They also found that women were also “less likely to say they would make adjustments to their diets and physical activity if they had consumed these low-sugar alcoholic drinks”.

In other words, they wouldn’t talk about heading to the gym to work off a good night out, or speak of eating more fruit and vegetables to offset the impact of alcohol on their health.


Because they truly believe they have chosen a healthier option.

The researchers say that’s not true, and there’s no way of knowing the nutritional profile of these drinks, because manufacturers aren’t compelled to put this information on the label.

‘Low-sugar’ alcohol may simply be an excuse to drink more. Photo: Getty

Meanwhile, the researchers say the happy consumer is being misled by the ‘health halo’ effect of alcoholic drinks labelled as low sugar.

This halo effect is pretty interesting, and maybe a little outrageous – suggesting, as it does, that marketing really is a demonic art.

As the researchers tell it, consumers tend to generalise from a specific favourable attribute (such as low sugar) to assuming the product has other healthy attributes (such as lower calories or lower alcohol).

The manufacturer hasn’t said so, but the consumer assumes it to be the case. This leads to an overall appraisal of the product as the healthier option.

How many people are true believers

About 75 per cent of Australian adults – people who’d drunk alcohol in the previous 12 months were taken hostage by the marketing.

A national survey, cited by Cancer Council, found these many Australians believed that health-oriented marketing claims – such as ‘natural’, ‘organic’, ‘low carb’, ‘no added sugar’, ‘low calorie’ – meant that an alcoholic drink was better for them than a product without these claims.

Of course, we all believe what we want to believe.

The new study

The new study is led by Dr Ashleigh Haynes, David Hill Research Fellow at Cancer Council Victoria’s Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer. This was in collaboration with the University of Melbourne and colleagues.

The researchers recruited 501 Australian women aged 18 to 35, from an opt-in online survey panel.

Half of the participants viewed images of products with a low sugar or related claim, and half viewed identical products with no claims.

Participants did this using six images of ready to drink (RTD) spirit drinks with mixer if they had consumed these in the past 12 months, or cider drinks if they had consumed those in the past 12 months.

Where participants had consumed both, they were randomly allocated to one or the other.

Keeping in mind these were just images, the women were asked to rate the products on various health measures.

The authors found that products labelled ‘low sugar’ were rated as significantly lower in sugar and kilojoules/energy, as healthier, and less harmful to health, and more suitable for incorporating into a weight management plan and a healthy diet than identical products with no healthy claim on the label.

The senior author says

Dr Haynes has done previous research into labelling of alcohol products. In September she published an article in the UK journal Institute of Alcohol Studies, in support of an audit she’d done of health labelling of booze products in Australia.

She writes: “In Australia, the alcohol industry opposed the introduction of mandatory pregnancy warnings and were successful in campaigning for them to be relegated to the back label when introduced in 2020. They also strongly resist general health warning labels to preserve ‘valuable label real estate’.

“Many Australians are not aware of the serious health impacts of alcohol and this is a gap that labelling reforms could help to address to potentially reduce population-level alcohol consumption.”

Consultation is currently under way in Australia and New Zealand to consider proposals for mandatory energy labelling of alcohol products and bans on nutrient content claims.

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