Michelob Ultra led the charge as the first low-carbohydrate beer, introduced in 2002. Now almost a dozen U.S. and European low-carb beers are on the market and companies like Coors, which ignored the initial rush, are racing to catch up.
It’s really all about marketing. To read the rum and vodka promotions (“new,” “hot,” “zero carb”) you’d think new formulations were hitting the shelves. But rum, vodka and most hard liquor have never had any carbs. They just got a marketing makeover. The “zero carb” campaign conjures up visions of healthy weight loss and offers cocktail recipes using no-calorie mixers, like Bacardi rum and diet cola or UV vodka and Crystal Light.
Michelob Ultra made the alcohol industry take the low-carb craze seriously. Michelob Ultra is almost identical to Miller Lite when it comes to carbs and calories. A 12-ounce bottle of Michelob Ultra has 2.6 carbs and 95 calories and Miller Lite has 3.2 carbs and 96 calories. The sales of Michelob Ultra were up an amazing 476 percent and this low-carb beer vaulted into eighth place in sales nationally, according to the Chicago market research company Information Resources Inc.
Compared to the low-carb beers, “light” (low-calorie) beers can have anywhere from Miller’s 3.2 carbs to Coors Light’s 5 to Michelob Light’s 11.7. Regular beers range from 10 to about 14, and rich, thick microbrews can go up to near 20.
Wine has carb levels comparable to light beer. Most of the sugars in wine are fermented into alcohol, but a few can remain in the finished wine, hence the carbs. The rule of thumb is that a 4-ounce glass of red or white wine — about two-thirds of the average glass — has 4 or 5 carbs, but they vary. Sutter Home lists 2.5 carbs for 4 ounces of its Pinot Noir, 6.2 for Chenin Blanc and 11.2 for its Moscato dessert wine. Hard liquor has no carbs because it’s distilled — any carbs not converted to alcohol get left behind.
Both calories and carbs count when it comes to losing weight. But for the estimated 24 million Americans on Atkins, South Beach or similar diets, it’s all about avoiding carbohydrates like poison. The idea is that if you don’t eat carbs, your body will burn up the body’s fat cells instead and the fat just melts away.
Under this theory, carbs that count are the ones that make blood sugar go up; certain carbs like fiber don’t count because they don’t make blood sugar zoom. Dieters tend to become fanatical about finding out the number of “net carbs”, the ones that count, in everything they consume.
Most people think alcohol is a carb, but it’s not. When it comes to nutrition, alcohol is its own little category – there’s protein, fat, carbohydrates and then alcohol. Alcohol is created when the sugars and other carbs in beer, wine and liquor ferment. Gram for gram, alcohol has almost twice the calories of carbs — 7 calories for alcohol compared to 4 for carbs.
Alcohol doesn’t raise blood sugar, but it goes right to your liver, and your body considers it such a priority to process that it will burn alcohol before anything else (protein, carbs or fat). So alcohol slows down any diet.
Beer is where most of the action is, because beer is a naturally carb laden drink and the grain that goes into beer is harder to convert to alcohol than the simple sugars in wine.
To make light beers with reduced calories, brewers cut alcohol levels. To cut carbs, they have to tinker with the grain mixes (adding corn and rice), change yeast types and mashing temperatures and extend fermentation times to convert as many of the carbs into alcohol as possible. The resulting beers lack the flavor and body of full-carb beers. And the carbs.
Beers that are under 7 percent alcohol can say “low carbohydrate” on their labels, under federal regulations. If they do, they must list carb and calorie counts.
Some companies like Coors chose not to jump into the low-carb game, in part so that a new product wouldn’t take away from sales of its own light beers. But the amazing sales of Michelob Ultra cut into Coors Light’s market share, and Coors has just rolled out low-carb Aspen Edge.
So, what is the best low carb alcoholic drink to choose? Well, if you have decided you will be heading out for a fun night and want to watch those carbs and calories, then your best bet is any hard liquor and diet soda. Here are a few possible drinks you can enjoy:
- Bacardi Rum and Diet Coke
- Captain Morgan’s Original Spiced Rum and Diet Coke
- Absolute Vodka and Crystal Light
- Grey Goose and Sugar Free Tonic
- Ketel One and Diet 7-Up