In the past, if you looked for a festive alternative to an alcoholic beverage, or a “mocktail,” you may have either been presented with slim offerings or none at all. However, there’s been a push in recent years for more places to offer up nonalcoholic beverages — and not just a mishmash of fruit juices or sweet sodas.
As the nonalcoholic landscape continues to evolve, people are moving toward “functional” mocktails, or nonalcoholic drinks that are designed to offer health benefits beyond mere refreshment. We spoke with Ashley Dawson, a registered dietitian on the staff at Texas Health Plano, to discuss what functional mocktails are, the health benefits they claim to provide and if there’s any truth behind their functionality.
What is a Mocktail?
A mocktail is a nonalcoholic drink that is made to look and taste like a cocktail. While these drinks have been around for a long time, understandably gaining popularity during the Prohibition era, they have recently gained popularity due to the growing trend of health and wellness.
According to research, Millennials, born between 1977 and 1995, and Generation Z, born between 1996 and 2009, are drinking less than the generations before them. A 2018 report from Berenberg Research found that Gen Z respondents were drinking more than 20 percent less per capita than their Millennial counterparts who already drank less than baby boomers and Gen Xers did at the same age.
Respondents said they drink less because of health and hangover-related concerns as well as worries about how they will be perceived by friends or parents on social media. Plus, many think drinking just isn’t that cool anymore.
Recently Reignited Interest in Mocktails
As we mentioned earlier, younger generations are drinking less than their older counterparts, however, they are asking more of the nonalcohol drinks they do choose to drink — hence the rise of functional mocktails.
Similar to mocktails, these drinks contain no alcohol but also come with supposed additional health benefits from things such as herbs, spices, and superfoods. Some of these ingredients are commonly referred to as adaptogens.
Often used in Eastern medicine, adaptogens are plants and mushrooms that help your body respond to stress, anxiety, fatigue and overall well-being. However, Dawson notes that research is limited on the health benefits associated with adaptogens and similar ingredients.
“Unfortunately, there is limited research to support the use of adaptogens or adaptogen-like substances like CBD oil, hemp, and magnesium supplementation for their calming or relaxing effects. There is no consensus on the amount of supplement required to create a consistent effect,” she explains. “While some blind studies have been conducted, they were small and highlight the need for further research.”
Additionally, Dawson notes there’s a good chance that many of the claims made for these substances are purely anecdotal.
“I suspect that individual sensitivity plays a role, and metabolizing these substances happens on such a small scale that it is difficult to say what they do for most people,” she adds. “This contrasts with the action and dramatic effect of alcohol, which an average serving size affects many people within 30 minutes of consumption.”
Some common ingredients you may see with functional mocktails include:
- BCAAs – Branched-chain amino acids are a group of three essential amino acids: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Research suggests that BCAAs can improve muscle mass and growth, reduce soreness and fatigue, prevent muscle wasting, and support liver health.
- Ashwagandha – An evergreen shrub that grows in Asia and Africa, it is considered a powerful adaptogen that enhances the body's resilience to stress and improves the body's defense against disease by improving immune response.
- Valerian Root – An herb with a long history of use as a sedative and seems to act like a sedative in the brain and nervous system.
- L-theanine – An amino acid that impacts nerve impulses in the brain and the release of neurotransmitters, which can promote relaxation by reducing stress and anxiety levels.
- Hemp extract or CBD – Both are derived from the cannabis plant, but from different parts of the plant, hemp extract contains no THC, and CBD oil contains only trace amounts of THC.
- Ginseng – A root, research suggests that it may offer benefits for brain health, immune function, blood sugar control, and more.
- Lemon balm – An herb from the mint family, lemon balm contains chemicals that seem to have a sedative and calming effect.
- Cordyceps, Reishi, Turkey Tail, Chaga or Lion’s Mane – These are all functional mushrooms believed to fight disease and improve cognition.
While ingredients in functional mocktails, such as adaptogens, are generally safe, Dawson notes there are a few groups who should exercise caution.
“Even though these drinks are alcohol free, functional mocktails are still not recommended for use in children, pregnant or nursing women, or those suffering from a medical issue,” she explains. “Because there is no governing body overseeing these supplements, there is concern for safety and the risk of interaction or exposure to unknown compounds, such as heavy metals.”
The Health Benefits of Taking a Break from Drinking Alcohol
While the jury may still be out regarding any additional health benefits these drinks claim, Dawson says there’s no doubting the very real health benefits that come from not drinking alcohol.
“From a dietitian's perspective, functional mocktails, or really any mocktail, are still an ideal substitute for alcohol,” she says. “They are a refreshing way to hydrate and incorporate antioxidants, which is health positive. They allow people to avoid the negative side effects of alcohol and promote the sober curious movement.”
Science supports those claims as well. According to a study published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry in July 2022, alcohol may accelerate biological aging. Another study published in July 2022 found that people under 40 should avoid alcohol because of the risks that come along with drinking, while older people may benefit from an occasional drink, like a glass of red wine.
Additionally, alcohol can also interfere with sleep, which is another vital component of good health. Higher alcohol intake is associated with poorer sleep quality, and cutting back on alcohol has been shown to improve sleep quality.
Furthermore, drinking too much alcohol over a long time can lead to some kinds of cancer, liver damage, immune system disorders, and brain damage, according to the National Institute on Aging.
Functional mocktails are changing the nonalcoholic landscape by offering a healthier, more sophisticated alternative to traditional soft drinks. They are meeting the demand for healthier beverage options, catering to mindful drinking, and showcasing the creativity of bartenders and mixologists. As the trend toward health and wellness continues to grow, functional mocktails will likely become an increasingly important part of the beverage industry.
It is important to speak with your healthcare provider before taking any new supplements. While supplements may seem harmless, they can interact with medications and cause harm.