RTDs: Pastel, pretty... healthy? The breakdown on 'better for you' alcoholic beverages

With the weather heating up across the country and a long weekend mere hours away, many New Zealanders will be gathering for a beverage or two in the sunshine over the next few days. 

If last summer is anything to go by, there's a certain drink type that will be in the hands of many - and it tends to come in a brightly coloured can. 

Low-sugar, low-calorie and 'higher quality' ready-to-drink options (RTDs) are massively in vogue: you've probably seen pastel Pals or an elephant emblazoned Part-Time Rangers on your Instagram feed or boxes carted down the street. 

According to local Nielsen data on Aotearoa, RTDs currently hold the second-highest share of liquor after beer and the category is growing at more than double the rate, accounting for 27 percent of all alcohol sales and mainly stealing its share from beer.

The RTD tide turns 

Registered nutritionist and director of Mission Nutrition Claire Turnbull says several factors caused the market to surge faster than you can say "crack open a cold one". 

"People became aware that traditional RTDs - your Vodka Cruisers and Smirnoff Double Backs - were very high in sugar. You know they taste very sweet, and they're highly coloured," she told Newshub. "They were clearly being pitched to a very specific target market."

Fuzzy teen memories indicate to many of us that exact market - alcohol newbies. 

Now the image conjured by the letters R, T and D has taken a turn. 

"It's become this movement of very trendy drinks," says Turnbull. "You can see that in the branding - these clean, clear bottles and subtle decoration. It's a 'cool' thing to be drinking.

"Another big factor with these drinks is convenience - obviously you can take a bottle of wine to someone's house but it's maybe not so socially acceptable to turn up with a bottle of rum and some cola. But these RTDs have a variety of spirits available to choose from." 


The 'better for you' breakdown

It's the focus on health and wellness that Turnbull takes issue with. She says a lot of people are under the impression these drinks are healthier than a glass of wine when in fact they stack up with a similar amount of calories per glass. 

In a survey from the US, 66 percent of millennials said they're either often or always influenced by how a product impacts their health and wellbeing when choosing alcoholic beverages. 

"I do think people perceive these as 'better or you', especially these ones that are soda-based," reflects Turnbull. "You know it's all my friends that go to the gym that drink them - they think spirit plus soda water equals lower calories.

"But not that many translate into the same calories as a soda and spirit drink you'd mix yourself at home as many use fruit juice to sweeten them. 

"Some are fractionally lower in calories [than wine or beer], most are similar and some are a lot more."  

RTDs have tapped into the millenial market with their 'better for you' branding.
RTDs have tapped into the millenial market with their 'better for you' branding. Photo credit: Getty.

Turnbull says that a standard 180ml glass of wine is around 120 calories - similar to a standard 5 percent bottle of beer. 

Most vodka or gin-based RTDs are about 100-120 calories per can - akin to 1 ¼ to 1 ½ pieces of bread, according to data supplied from Turnbull's Mission Nutrition team. 

"That's similar to a glass of wine, which is fine," says Turnbull. "Just as long as you know what you're drinking. None of it is particularly great for you." 

The volume is where RTDs come into their own - Turnbull says it's more likely you'll sip a 330ml can of drink slower than a 180ml glass of wine - and they often have a hydrating dash of soda water in there to boot.

"We all need to reduce alcohol in terms of the number of units we drink - so that means going for lower-in-alcohol drinks, or even cutting your wine or beer with soda to make spritzers," she recommends. "If that means you have one less, that's the best move." 

So what should we be drinking? 

It comes down to a key question: which do you like more? If it's RTDs, then choose them. In my case, I often choose them because I'm not a white wine girl in the slightest and it's tough to sip a Merlot at a BBQ on a scorcher of a summer's day. 

If you're going to choose  RTD, try going for a lower-calorie, locally produced options.

Here are our top picks: 


You might be surprised to hear this brand is celebrating its first birthday - it feels like the pastel pretty cans have been soaking on our social media feeds for a lot longer than a year. Joining the line-up is a new 'lilac' can, which is a yum Central Otago Peach and Passion flavour. The Pals range are all vegan and gluten-free and most are fairly low in calories - around 105 for a 330ml serve. 

You've probably seen Pals pastel colours pop up on your Instagram feed.
You've probably seen Pals pastel colours pop up on your Instagram feed. Photo credit: Supplied.


Featuring some of the best packaging we've seen, this range of alcoholic kombucha is produced by New Zealand kombucha brand Batchwell. When choosing an alcoholic kombucha - a clear sign of the millennial shift to health and wellness - Turnbull says it's the quality of kombucha you should be taking into account: they vary in sugar content and gut health benefits. If you're looking for a low-sugar option, these are pretty great as they come in at 1.3g per 100ml and around 86 - 99 calories per can. There are three flavours available - two vodka-based and one gin-based. For my money, 'Gin, cucumber and lemon' is the best pick for a hot summer arvo. 

Blume are a new range of 'hard' kombuchas hitting the NZ market.
Blume are a new range of 'hard' kombuchas hitting the NZ market. Photo credit: Supplied.

LF Wine Seltzers

Created by New Zealand winery Villa Maria, these new wine seltzers mix wine, sparkling water and botanicals. Joining the pastel, looks-good-on-your-Instagram set, they come in three flavours: 'Yuzu, Mint and Cucumber with Sauvignon Blanc', 'Pear and Ginger with Pinot Gris' and 'Strawberry and Hibiscus with Rosé'. These drinks just about take out the top spot calorie wise: they're just 68 calories and less than 1 gram of sugar per serve. That's pretty impressive for something that's just as delicious as a higher calorie option.

LF wine seltzers
Lower in calories but higher in flavour, these spritzers are also new to the New Zealand market. Photo credit: Supplied.

Mama's Brewshop Happy Hour Hard Kombucha 

Another alcoholic kombucha option, but this one is different in that the alcohol naturally occurs from fermentation, rather than added alcohol. These drinks certainly SOUND healthy - especially the blend of lemongrass and ginger, which sounds like a delicious Kombucha curry. Double fermentation with champagne yeast and organic botanicals mean these have all the belly goodness you want in an alcoholic 'booch. 

Mama's Brewshop has just released their own range of double fermented hard kombuchas.
Mama's Brewshop has just released their own range of double fermented hard kombuchas. Photo credit: Supplied.