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Your Alcoholic Beverages Might Soon Have Nutritional Labels

Your Alcoholic Beverages Might Soon Have Nutritional Labels

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But only if the producers want to add them

The TTB announced new changes to nutritional labeling on liquor, wine, and beer bottles.

There's a big change coming for your wine, beer, and spirits bottles: soon, they might have nutritional labels like any other beverage.

That's the newest update from the Treasury Department and the Alcohol and Tobacco Trade and Tax Bureau (or TTB), reports the Associated Press. These new changes, which would allow producers to include serving sizes, calories, protein, carbohydrates, and fat per serving on labels, have been in the works since 2007, but the TTB never finalized those rules. "This is actually bringing alcoholic beverages into the modern era," said one executive vice president at Diageo, Guy Smith, to the Associated Press.

The newest ruling is a big win for both alcoholic beverage companies, who want to promote the nutritional value of their drinks (such as lower calorie count), and for consumer advocacy groups, who want more transparency from alcoholic beverage companies. However, it looks as though many producers won't choose to include these labels on their products — and it could cause some more confusion in the wacky world of alcoholic labeling. The AP notes that wine companies are likely to not use new labels, as well as beer companies. And consumer groups, like the Center for Science in the Public Interest, worry that beverage companies will likely use the new regulations to make their drinks appear more healthy than they actually are.

The AP says this is a first step as the TTB decides on more final rules, as the ruling is just temporary.

What’s the ABV? Transparency in beer labeling

Seven years ago, I was living in Ghent, Belgium. Though I had been a fan of craft beer for years, Belgium is where I learned the hard way about the wide variance of alcohol content between different styles.

I hadn’t yet been introduced to the Belgian golden strong ale or tripel—two drinkable yet shockingly potent styles. It took a severe hangover to realize that drinking three bottles of my new favorite—Westmalle Tripel (9.5 percent alcohol by volume, or ABV)—is the equivalent of tossing back nearly a six-pack of Summit Extra Pale Ales.

I soon noticed that the Belgians I met carefully considered the ABV listed on the menu or the beer label when ordering beer, choosing a tripel (9 percent ABV or more) at the beginning of the night and a pintje (low alcohol tap beer, ordered in Flanders by holding up your pinky to the bartender) at the end of the night.

The alcohol content of beer can range from 2.5 to more than 25 percent ABV—though most styles weigh in anywhere from 3 to 12 percent. In the United States, where low-alcohol lagers have dominated the market for decades, styles with elevated alcohol content are still a relatively new phenomenon. U.S. Dietary Guidelines still define a standard beer as 12 ounces and 5 percent ABV.

Westmalle Tripel // Photo via Flickr user Georgio, CC 2.0

It struck me when I returned to the states and had trouble finding ABV on beer menus or beer labels. Canada and the European Union require breweries to disclose this information on labels.

Many craft Minnesota breweries choose to include ABV on their labels, but when I noticed my cans of Summit Brewing Company’s Sága IPA did not, I asked Summit’s Director of Quality Rebecca Newman to explain. She told me the brewery’s labels don’t all currently feature ABV. She says whether or not ABV is included on the label has to do with when a particular beer was created and where it’s distributed (since states may have contradictory laws).

After Prohibition had been repealed, Congress passed a law in 1935 banning the practice of labeling the alcoholic content of beer. The assumption was that consumers would buy the strongest beer, and by not disclosing this information the government hoped to prevent breweries from competing and engaging in “strength wars.”

In 1995, Coors successfully challenged this law. Currently, the feds leave it up to the states to decide whether to include ABV, which has resulted in a complicated mishmash of state and federal regulations on the subject. New York prohibits labels from including ABV, for example, while North Carolina, Washington, and New Hampshire mandate labeling beers over 6 percent, 8 percent, and 12 percent respectively.

Most alcohol labeling regulation falls under the regulations of the Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). Distinctions are made between wine, beer, cider, and spirits. The laws are so complicated that breweries are increasingly hiring lawyers who specialize in beverage law to navigate them.

Attorney Elliot Ginsburg of Hop Law points out that hard cider below 7 percent ABV is governed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), not the TTB, which means “Nutrition Facts” have to be included on the label, though inclusion of ABV is optional. Similarly, if a beer is labeled “light,” or not brewed from malted barley, it’s also subject to FDA regulations.

Since 1972, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has been petitioning the government to mandate inclusion of key information on beer labels, including alcoholic content, calories and carbohydrates. In response, the TTB issued guidelines for voluntary labeling of nutritional content and ABV of alcoholic beverages.

“I think the trend is towards more labeling rather than less,” says Ginsburg.

“Most of the beer I see does have ABV listed. I think it’s because craft beer customers are sophisticated—they want to know what they’re buying and drinking.”

Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association, a national trade association for small brewers, acknowledges that there’s demand for more information among craft beer drinkers, particularly related to ABV.

“There is recognition, I think, that people really care about ABV and responsibility. Just about everyone I have beers with considers strength, and the growth of session IPAs is part of that. Many craft beer bars list ABV on menu boards,” Gatza said in an email.

But Gatza says there’s a risk in putting ABV on a label, particularly for breweries that aren’t automated because of the potential for variation between batches. Current regulations allow a small variance of plus or minus 0.3 percent alcohol, but still many beers fall outside of their stated ABV. In fact, nearly a quarter of all the malt beverages randomly sampled by the TTB in 2015 as a part of its Alcohol Beverage Sampling Program (ABSP) were found to be either over or under the allowable variance in ABV.

With recent efforts pushing for greater label transparency, such as the Brewer’s Voluntary Disclosure Initiative from the Beer Institute and a new regulation from the FDA that call for not just the ABV but also the nutritional information of beers, craft breweries will need to find cost-effective solutions to brewing more consistently from batch to batch.

Big breweries with in-house labs won’t have trouble complying with the new regulation. But for smaller craft breweries, it’s not as easy. The Brewers Association has been working to help craft breweries comply with the new FDA regulation going into effect this May.

Summit will be affected by this change, as its beer is available at chains like Buffalo Wild Wings and New Bohemia. Newman says the brewery is “poised and ready” for the new regulation.

Newman notes that testing beer in-house or by a third party has become a crucial aspect of process and quality control for brewers. She expects more movement towards transparency in labeling in the near future, as consumers continue to demand more information about what they’re drinking.

“If brewers cry foul about these changes, they need to take a hard look at why they’re in the business of brewing in the first place […] Brewers have to realize this is part of the cost of brewing, it’s the cost of quality—and quality matters.”

Alcohol nutritional labeling a regulatory maze

Nutrition and public policy expert Marion Nestle answers readers' questions in this monthly column written exclusively for The Chronicle. E-mail your questions to [email protected], with "Marion Nestle" in the subject line.

Q: I like to read nutritional information on the foods and beverages I consume. Why is there no such information on alcoholic beverages?

A: You want to know the alcohol, calories and ingredients in your wine, beer and liquor? Good luck.

Some alcohol drinks label some of this, but so inconsistently that it's hard to make sense of it. The alcohol beverage industry prefers that you not think about what's in their products. And Congress does not want alcohol marketed as nutritious.

Remember Prohibition? This was the era from 1920 to 1933 when alcohol could not be made, transported or sold in America. When it ended, Congress passed the Alcohol Administration Act of 1935, still in force. Recognizing the tax potential of alcohol beverages, Congress assigned their regulation to the Treasury Department. Treasury's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) sets rules for alcohol labels.

Absurd as it may seem, the labeling rules differ for wine, beer and distilled spirits. Substances to which people might be sensitive, such as sulfites and yellow No. 5, must be labeled, but TTB considers "ingredients" only to mean carbohydrate, protein and fat. If a label states calories, it must also state those ingredients, even though wine and hard liquor hardly have any (beer has some carbohydrate).

Listing other ingredients is voluntary and some winemakers are placing ingredient lists on labels - mostly grapes, but sometimes oak products.

Concentrate hard on what comes next. Labels of distilled spirits must state percent alcohol. They may list calories (but usually don't). Wine label rules depend on percent alcohol. Wines containing 14 percent alcohol or more must display alcohol content they may list calories (but don't).

Wines from 7 to 14 percent must list alcohol and may list calories, unless they are labeled "light" or "table," in which case they do not have to list either.

And get this: Wines with less than 7 percent alcohol are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, not TTB. They must display Nutrition Facts labels with calories, nutrients and actual ingredients. They may disclose percent alcohol, and some do.

The 1935 act prohibited beer labels from disclosing alcohol content, lest manufacturers compete to sell "stronger" products, but the ban was successfully challenged in court.

Now beer labels may state percent alcohol, and when it helps sales, they do. The "energy-booster" beers associated with college drinking freely display alcohol content. Their labels also boast of caffeine, ginseng and taurine, ingredients regulated by the FDA as food additives.

Calories on beer labels are equally inconsistent. Regular beer may state calories. Light beer must do so.

I'm not done yet. If a beer is made from a grain other than malted barley, it is FDA-regulated. It must display Nutrition Facts it may display alcohol.

Malibu Rum Nutrition Information

One serving of Malibu rum is 1.7 ounces or 50 milliliters and contains 8.3 grams of alcohol. This typically means you can get 14 or 15 servings per bottle. Malibu rum's calories differ depending on the product. Each serving of original Malibu rum is 100 calories. However, Malibu Tropical Banana rum has 94 calories, Malibu Passion Fruit rum has 87 calories, Malibu Mango rum has 86 calories and Malibu Pineapple rum has 84 calories.

The carbs in Malibu coconut rum also differ between products. In each serving of original Malibu rum, you can obtain 11 grams of carbohydrates. However, Malibu Tropical Banana rum has 9 grams of carbohydrates and the remaining three products, Malibu Passion Fruit rum, Malibu Mango rum and Malibu Pineapple rum all have 7 grams of carbohydrates per serving. In all of these products, all carbohydrates come from sugars.

Malibu rum ingredients aren't listed on its website, but coconut is listed as an allergen on many of their products, as is milk. This means that certain products may also have carbohydrates that come from natural sources, rather than just flavorings.

Comparatively, a 50-milliliter serving of Bacardi rum superior, one of the most popularly consumed rums in the United States, has no carbohydrates, fat or protein at all. However, it still contains calories — about 110 calories per 50 milliliters. However, due to the higher alcohol content (40 percent ABV), Bacardi lists the recommended serving size as 44 milliliters (1.5 ounces), which means there are 98 calories per serving.

Ultimately, this means that there are roughly the same amount of calories in sweetened, coconut-flavored Malibu rum and a standard 40-percent ABV rum drink.

Cheers to health warning labels for alcoholic drinks

Robin Room heads a research centre that receives funding from the Alcohol Education and Rehabilitation Foundation (AERF), a nonprofit organisation which is one of the bodies mentioned in the article. He receives funding from NHMRC and ARC for alcohol policy-relevant research.


University of Melbourne provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation AU.

The Conversation UK receives funding from these organisations

Despite known risks of drinking, health and safety warning labels have been noticeably absent from alcoholic beverages in Australia.

But that might be about to change, with the Government today seeking feedback from consumer groups on the recommendations of the Review of Food Labelling Law and Policy.

The independent review chaired by Dr Neal Blewett released its report – Labelling Logic – on January 28, 2011. It contains 61 recommendations, four of which pertain to warning labels on alcoholic drinks.

Professor of Population Health & Chair of Social Research in Alcohol, Robin Room answers some questions about why we need warning labels on alcoholic beverages and what form they should take.

Why label at all?

Alcohol is a very dirty drug because it affects a lot of different organs of the body.

The majority of Australians have a general idea that it’s not too good for the liver to drink a lot but what most don’t know is that alcohol is implicated in a number of cancers.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer declared some time ago that alcohol is a human carcinogen and has reiterated the warning in a recent report.

People generally have an idea that it’s not a good idea to drive a car when you’ve been drinking but again, most don’t know that a substantial proportion of people who die in drowning accidents have had quite a bit to drink.

That message is on one of the warning labels in Sweden – half of all the Swedes who drown are drunk when they do so.

Warning labels are a good step but they’re not a whole policy, they’re a piece of what needs to be done about alcohol policy in Australia.

Warning labels for alcoholic drinks proposed the the AERF.

What is the local context for alcohol labelling?

In Australia, as in many other countries, alcohol is not labelled in the same way that food is. So it’s exempt from the usual requirements for anything else you take into your body, which are required to have labels listing all ingredients and composition from a nutritional viewpoint.

That’s a peculiarity that has come out of history but it doesn’t make sense because you are taking in calories or kilojoules into your body when you drink.

In recent weeks, DrinkWise, which is an industry-funded social aspects organization, has come out with voluntary standards on labelling, which they hope 80% of the industry will follow.

And yesterday the Alcohol Education and Rehabilitation Foundation (AERF) released a report calling for a Government-imposed health warning label system. Their proposed label is much more detailed and much more rigorous than what is currently being implemented by the industry under the DrinkWise initiative.

The AERF recommends rotating five warning labels because one of the problems with warning labels is that you get very used to it after a while – as you do with anything else you see every day – and you don’t notice them.

If you change the message periodically and if there are a variety of messages being displayed, then people are much more likely to notice them and go on noticing them.

The main precedents for this kind of labelling is on cigarette packaging but there is another example for alcohol warning labels in Sweden. Every advertisement for alcohol in Swedish newspapers has to dedicate an eighth of its area to a health message. And there are 11 warning messages to choose from, put forward by the Swedish public health institute.

Warning labels for alcoholic drinks proposed DrinkWise.

What kind of labels are effective?

The best practice is firstly to have warning labels, to make them quite specific about particular health impacts to worry about and avoid, to have a variety of different messages in rotation and ensure they are in legible type and big enough to read.

The evidence we have is primarily from the American warning labels, which don’t fit several of the criteria.

But we know people noticed the labels and that they noticed them more when they were new than they do now. And the studies show a large number of people can remember what the warning label says.

Naturally, regular drinkers see the labels more regularly, which is not a bad thing. If you’re drinking in a pub, you tend not to see the labels but then most people who drink quite a lot drink out of a can or a bottle.

We know some conversations were started by the warning labels in the United States but beyond that there really isn’t much evidence on the actual effect on behaviour.

So we’re operating on the general idea that this is a good thing to do and it’s a step in the right direction.

If we do it better than the American effort then there’s a good chance it’ll have some effects on behaviour. But the best evidence of warning labels having an actual effect on behaviour is again from cigarettes rather than from alcohol.

Alcohol warning label from the United States.

What kind of labels do other countries have?

Alcohol labelling as an idea has been around for quite a while. The United States has had warning labels on alcoholic drinks now for about 20 years. It resulted from a push in the US Congress for about ten years.

They have a single warning label and the rules on how it has to be displayed aren’t very restrictive, so often it’s sideways or small print or unreadable type or in white on gold. And there’s quite a lot of information on it.

The labels in the United States warn against drinking during pregnancy, driving cars or operating machinery while drinking, all at the same time. It tries to wrap everything up into a single label.

A number of other countries also have labels but often they’re very general in what they say, such as drinking can be harmful to your health, and its left at that.

Should alcohol contain warning labels? What form should they take? Have your say below

Alcoholic beverage, wine, table, red Nutrition Facts & Calories

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Nutrition facts label for Alcoholic beverage, wine, table, red

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NUTRITIONAL TARGET MAP&trade The Nutritional Target Map&trade allows you to see at a glance how foods line up with your nutritional and weight-management goals. The closer a food is to the right edge of the map, the more essential nutrients per calorie it contains. For a more nutritious diet, select foods that fall on the right half of the map.

The closer a food is to the top edge of the map, the more likely it is to fill you up with fewer calories. If you want to restrict your caloric intake without feeling hungry, choose foods from the top half of the map.

Foods that are close to the bottom edge are more calorie-dense. If you want to increase your calorie intake without getting too full, choose foods from the bottom half of the map.
Read more about the Nutritional Target Map

Nutritional Target Map for Alcoholic beverage, wine, table, red

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The good : This food is very low in Saturated Fat, Cholesterol and Sodium.

The bad : A large portion of the calories in this food come from sugars and alcohol.

CALORIC RATIO PYRAMID&trade This graphic shows you what percentage of the calories in a food come from carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and alcohol. If you are trying to achieve a specific distribution of calories, such as the 40/30/30 distribution of the Zone&trade diet, or the more traditional 60/30/10 distribution, the Caloric Ratio Pyramid&trade will show you how recipes, meal plans, or individual foods line up with those goals.

Foods low in fat, for example, will cluster along the bottom edge of the pyramid, ranging from foods that are high in carbohydrates (at the left edge) to foods that are high in protein (at the right edge). Foods low in carbohydrates will cluster along the right edge of the pyramid, with foods that are high in fat at the upper edge and foods that are high in protein at the lower edge. Foods that have roughly the same number of calories from fats, calories, and protein will be found closer to the center of the pyramid.
Read more about the Caloric Ratio Pyramid

Caloric Ratio Pyramid for Alcoholic beverage, wine, table, red

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ESTIMATED GLYCEMIC LOAD&trade Glycemic load is a way of expressing a food or meal's effect on blood-sugar levels. Nutrition Data&rsquos patent-pending Estimated Glycemic Load&trade (eGL) is available for every food in the database as well as for custom foods, meals, and recipes in your Pantry.

How to interpret the values: Experts vary on their recommendations for what your total glycemic load should be each day. A typical target for total Estimated Glycemic Load is 100 or less per day. If you have diabetes or metabolic syndrome, you might want to aim a little lower. If you are not overweight and are physically active, a little higher is acceptable.
Read more about the eGL

Nutrient Balance Indicator for Alcoholic beverage, wine, table, red

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NUTRIENT BALANCE INDICATOR&trade This symbol offers a visual representation of a food's nutritional strengths and weaknesses, with each spoke representing a different nutrient. The spoke for dietary fiber is colored green, protein is blue, vitamins are purple, minerals are white, and yellow represents a group of commonly overconsumed nutrients: saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium.

A Completeness Score between 0 and 100 is a relative indication of how complete the food is with respect to these nutrients. Although few (if any) individual foods provide all the essential nutrients, the Nutrient Balance Indicator and Completeness Score can help you construct meals that are nutritionally balanced and complete.
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Protein Quality for Alcoholic beverage, wine, table, red

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PROTEIN QUALITY Protein quality is dependent on having all the essential amino acids in the proper proportions. If one or more amino acid is not present in sufficient amounts, the protein in your diet is considered incomplete.

Each spoke on the Protein Quality graph represents one of the nine essential amino acids, and the graph shows how close the protein in your diet is to the optimal distribution of amino acids recommended by the Institute of Medicine's Food and Nutrition Board.

An Amino Acid Score of 100 or higher indicates a complete or high-quality protein. If the Amino Acid Score is less than 100, a link is provided to complementary sources of protein. By combining complementary proteins, you may be able to increase the overall quality of the protein you consume.
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This listing does not contain enough data on individual amino acids to determine protein quality.

Footnotes for Alcoholic beverage, wine, table, red

" indicates a missing or incomplete value.

Percent Daily Values (%DV) are for adults or children aged 4 or older, and are based on a 2,000 calorie reference diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower based on your individual needs.

Nutrition Data's Opinion, Completeness Score™, Fullness Factor™, Rating, Estimated Glycemic Load (eGL), and Better Choices Substitutions™ are editorial opinions of, given without warranty, and are not intended to replace the advice of a nutritionist or health-care professional. Nutrition Data's opinions and ratings are based on weighted averages of the nutrient densities of those nutrients for which the FDA has established Daily Values, and do not consider other nutrients that may be important to your health or take into account your individual needs. Consequently, Nutrition Data's higher-rated foods may not necessarily be healthier for you than lower-rated ones. All foods, regardless of their rating, have the potential to play an important role in your diet.

NUTRITION DATA'S OPINION Nutrition Data awards foods 0 to 5 stars in each of three categories, based on their nutrient density (ND Rating) and their satiating effect (Fullness Factor&trade). Foods that are both nutritious and filling are considered better choices for weight loss. Foods that are nutritious without being filling are considered better choices for healthy weight gain. Foods that have more essential nutrients per calorie are considered better choices for optimum health.

Nutrition Data also indicates whether a food is particularly high or low in various nutrients, according to the dietary recommendations of the FDA.
Read more about Nutrition Data's opinion

Definition of Proof

Proof is the measure of the amount of alcohol in a standard drinking or medicinal liquid, an expression of the strength of the liquid. According to tradition, the modern concept of proof dates from the early 18th century, when British seamen were issued a daily ration of rum. To assure an honest and consistent supply, rum was tested, or proved, by being mixed with gunpowder. Rum containing 57.15 percent ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, by volume was graded as 100 proof because, at that alcoholic concentration, the rum mixture could be ignited and burned with a steady flame. Although the exact relationships between proof and alcohol content have changed over time, proof still serves as a quick way for consumers to rate the strength of their purchases.

A standard glass of wine is 5 oz, so that means a glass of medium dry wine has between 0.75 grams and 1.8 grams of residual sugar per glass. To put that into perspective, 10 M&M'S have 10.2 grams of sugar, so the standard glass of medium dry doesn't seem half bad.

If you're worried about sugar — maybe stick to a drier white wine.

The American Heart Association recommends that men consume less than 37.5 grams of added sugars per day and that women consume less than 25 grams per day. So, if you're worried about your daily sugar content, maybe stay away from sweet wines and drinks paired with sugary juices or sodas. But, if you're not concerned, hey, one sugary cocktail every once in a while certainly won't kill you.

Tricks to Rethink Your Drink:

Choose water (tap, bottled, or sparkling) over sugary drinks.

  • Need more flavor? Add berries or slices of lime, lemon, or cucumber to water.
  • Missing fizzy drinks? Add a splash of 100% juice to plain sparkling water for a refreshing, low-calorie drink.
  • Need help breaking the habit? Don&rsquot stock up on sugary drinks. Instead, keep a jug or bottles of cold water in the fridge.
  • Water just won&rsquot do? Reach for drinks that contain important nutrients such as low fat or fat free milk, fortified milk alternatives, or 100% fruit or vegetable juice first.
  • At the coffee shop? Skip the flavored syrups or whipped cream. Ask for a drink with low fat or fat free milk, a milk alternative such as soy or almond, or get back to basics with black coffee.
  • At the store? Read the Nutrition Facts Label to choose drinks that are low in calories, added sugars, and saturated fat.
  • On the go? Carry a reusable water bottle with you and refill it throughout the day.
  • Still thirsty? Learn how to drink more water.

Remember that you can be a role model for your friends and family by choosing water and other healthy, low-calorie beverages.

Counting cocktail calories now

It may be years before most alcohol containers or bar drinks come with calorie counts. However, if you want to keep your happy hour from becoming a hefty hour, there are already a couple things you can do:

  • When pouring a drink at home, measure it out so you know how much you’re drinking.
  • When ordering a cocktail in a bar or restaurant, ask the bartender or waiter how many ounces of alcohol it contains, and how many calories it contains. They may not know, but it’s worth asking.

Calories aside, limiting alcohol consumption to one drink a day if you’re a woman and two if you’re a man is always a good idea. When you exceed that limit, your health risks start to rise.