From light beers to low-booze wines to slightly-spiked canned cocktails, find out how that sip *really* stacks up.
different hands holding up beer, wine, and a cocktail
Credit: Images: Getty Images; Collage: Cassie Basford

Damp January and Sober October are just the beginning. As more and more Americans dip their toe into spirit-free or semi-sober lifestyles, the no- and low-alcohol drink market is booming. In 2021, the zero- and low-ABV (alcohol by volume) beverage industry grew by 6%, making up 3½% of the entire adult drink industry, according to IWSR, a beverage market and data analysis agency. And this spike is showing no signs of slowing. IWSR predicts the current $10 billion global market will increase by 8% by 2025; compare that to a 0.7% growth rate for the regular alcohol industry.

It's clear that winemakers, brewers, cider makers and spirit creators alike are no longer trying to max out the amount of alcohol they can add to their sips. And that's a good thing for our buzz levels as well as cancer risk and beyond.

When we're talking about drinking in moderation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this means up to two drinks per day for males and up to one for females.

Before we go any further, "Evidence shows that folks assigned female at birth do tend to absorb and metabolize alcohol differently than their male counterparts," says Molly Bremer, M.S., RD, a registered dietitian and the director of Mosaic Nutrition in Burlington, Vermont, due to body fat levels and the amount of an enzyme that helps break down alcohol in the body.

With all that in mind, what happens when that one drink has less alcohol? We tapped experts to help translate what actually counts as "moderation."

What Counts as One Alcoholic Drink?

One "standard" drink contains about 14 grams of pure alcohol, which is found in the following servings, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism:

  • 12 ounces of regular beer with 5% ABV
  • 5 ounces of wine with 12% alcohol
  • 1.5 ounces of liquor with 40% alcohol (80 proof)

For comparison, a pint of beer is 16 ounces, and a typical airport bar, for instance, usually offers 6- and 9-ounce pours of wine.

"When you look closer at what exactly a standard drink really means, it's clear that your drink might actually exceed the size of one standard drink," says Roxana Ehsani, RD, CSSD, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Miami and a national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

These numbers come from research on multiple components of drinking behavior and health outcomes, including the number of drinking days per week, average drinks per day and binge drinking, clarifies Alex Caspero, RD, a St. Louis-based registered dietitian and the founder of Delish Knowledge.

"All those numbers have evolved and changed over time," Caspero says, as we learn more from research and health outcomes. These limits are recommended as guidelines per day, "but if I was talking to a friend, I would clarify that the minimum risk of low-level drinking frequency for all-cause mortality appears to be approximately three times per week," Caspero adds, citing a November 2019 study published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. "Low-level alcohol use of about one drink per day may be helpful in cardiovascular disease risk, but may increase cancer risk."

Are the Drink Recommendations the Same for Lower-ABV Drinks?

The quantity is an important factor in what qualifies as a drink, true, as is what's inside that glass. Wine alcohol content can vary from about 5% to 23%, beers generally range from 3% to 13% and liquors are around 15% to 50%. The lower end of those ranges seems to decrease each year as more brands introduce "dealcoholized" or low-ABV options.

If the focus is solely on alcohol level, then yes, a low-ABV drink would technically be designated as less than one drink, Bremer adds. If the ABV level is half the standard drink and the number of fluid ounces remains the same, then this new drink would equate to half a "standard" drink.

"Hypothetically, males could drink up to four 12-ounce beers at 2.5% ABV and females could drink two, for example," Bremer says.

And a higher-alcohol drink, like that 17% zinfandel or 8% IPA, would count as more than one drink. For this reason, it's important to compare the alcohol percentage on the product with the portion size and the drinking guidelines listed above and try to stick within that range.

All that being said, "I think it's tricky to say that consuming low-ABV drinks gives an allowance to drink more. I wouldn't feel comfortable shifting the recommendations to include more beverages that just happen to be low-ABV," Caspero says. "These lower-alcohol drinks haven't been around long enough for the government recommendations to change, and I think it's a good idea to treat low-ABV the same as regular drinks."

Whether or not you decide to adjust the scale for what counts as "one" drink is up to you, as is whether you drink alcohol at all. It's best not to use these lower-alcohol options as permission to drink more servings, but instead, use them to step down your alcohol consumption while enjoying a social beverage that, depending on the drink, may still deliver some potential health benefits, per a 2019 review in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition.

If you want to dip your toe into this trend, we love these low-alcohol beers, and after taste tests, our editors think these are the best nonalcoholic drinks you can buy online.

The Bottom Line

As the low-ABV and zero-proof offerings continue to expand, the definition of "one" drink gets a bit more complex. While technically a lower-alcohol option could qualify as less than a drink, it's best to count each serving size of a particular beverage—5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer or 1.5 ounces of liquor—as a serving of alcohol and not go down the slippery slope of calculating ABV and serving size for an excuse to drink more.

Also, if you don't drink, or drink less than the amount listed in the guidelines, there is certainly no need to start drinking or increase drinking more just because more beverage options are available, Ehsani says.

"Alcohol is an addictive substance, and excessive drinking can cause serious health conditions, and just because you didn't drink all week doesn't mean you get to save it all up for Friday night," Ehsani says.