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February 25, 2020 | 4 minute read

Hard Seltzer and Cancer Risk: What’s the Connection?

It’s the latest trend among drinkers – combining the popularity of flavored seltzer water with the appeal of alcohol. Hard seltzer sales have exploded, growing close to 200 percent over the past year with no signs of slowing.

Many of these drinks imply that they are healthy by highlighting their relatively low-calorie count and using terms such as ancient grains, organic and natural. Similar to the ubiquitous seltzer waters, hard seltzers also feature a wide range of fruity flavors – using images and descriptions that bring to mind all the healthfulness and freshness of real fruit.

Yet, the research clearly shows that alcohol increases the risk of many types of cancer. Are spiked seltzers really a healthy choice? Here’s what you need to know about hard seltzers and cancer risk.

The alcohol-cancer connection

AICR’s latest analysis of the global evidence found that alcohol increases the risk of several cancers, including cancer of the liver, colon, mouth, breast and esophagus. Even small amounts of regular alcohol intake increase the risk of breast and esophageal cancers.

That is why for cancer prevention, AICR recommends not to drink alcohol at all. If you do drink though, keep it to moderate amounts. That means no more than one drink a day for women and two or less for men.

From red wine to beer and vodka, research links all types of alcoholic beverages with increased cancer risk. Evidence points to the alcohol in the drink being culpable, as opposed to other parts of the beverage. The type of alcohol in beverages is called ethanol, and scientists are still working to understand exactly how ethanol plays a role in cancer developing.

What’s in hard seltzer?

At its most basic level, hard seltzer is alcohol added to seltzer, which is water with carbon dioxide. The alcohol is often from fermented sugar. Add some flavorings along with fruit juice or extracts and that makes up the ingredients of most hard seltzer brands.

The popular hard seltzers fall in the range of light and standard beers in terms of alcohol content. Most contain 4-7 percent alcohol by volume, depending on the brand. Light beers have about 4 percent alcohol. A few hard seltzers contain far more alcohol though, with one brand touting a 14 percent alcohol content.

The popular hard seltzer brands contain about 100 calories, which is also comparable to common light beers.

Hard seltzer in moderation

Any drink with alcohol (ethanol) — including hard seltzer — increases cancer risk. The more you drink, the greater the risk.

“It is important to note that many of these alcoholic beverages are being marketed as healthy with ‘exotic and nutritious’ flavors and stressing low calories, but do remember that these drinks are still providing empty calories with no nutritional value,” said Sheena P. Swanner, AICR’s Director of Nutrition Programs.

The amount of ethanol in your beverage is what defines a standard drink. Here in the US, one standard drink contains 14 grams or and about 3.5 teaspoons of ethanol. That translates to:

  • 12 fluid ounces of beers or other drinks that have 5% alcohol
  • 5 ounces of wine that contains 12% alcohol
  • 1.5 fluid ounce of vodka, rum or other hard liquor that has 40% alcohol

“If you want to drink hard seltzer, then enjoy in moderation,” says Swanner. For a hard seltzer, a standard drink would likely range from about:

  • 15 fluid ounces of hard seltzers that have 4% alcohol
  • 8.5 fluid ounces of hard seltzers that have 7% alcohol

“If you are drinking hard seltzers, you could try diluting it down with a non-alcoholic flavored sparking water and adding frozen fruit chunks for a lighter take,” adds Swanner. “You could also switch to non-alcoholic, healthier beverage alternatives, such as the plain or flavored sparkling water, soda water, and unsweetened teas.”

You can estimate how much a standard drink is with this calculator by the National Institutes of Health.

Find out more about the research linking alcohol and cancer risk in our latest report.

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