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December 20, 2017

Why don't alcoholic drinks have a nutrition label?

'Infrequently Asked Questions' seeks the answer

The nearly endless sea of food products available to consumers is, even among the most obscure or bottom-barrel of items, filled with nutrition labels that list calorie counts, carbohydrate amounts and more.

But why is it that alcoholic drinks--which, 56 percent of Americans reported in 2015 they consumed at least one in the past month--don't have any label at all? 

To solve the mystery, we reached out to Daniel Bisogno, an adjunct professor who teaches courses centering around beer and other alcoholic drinks at Drexel University's Center for Food and Hospitality Management.

The question at hand: Why is it that with wines, beer and liquor I can’t find a nutrition label, but nearly everything else I can? What’s the regulation there?

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Beer and alcoholic beverages fall under the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Trade Bureau), which is what came to be post-Prohibition as opposed to the FDA. The FDA controls, you know, food. They’re different. 

There are beers that do not have malt and barley, which do have a listing—you’ll notice gluten-free beers do have a listing. Because they don’t have malt and barley. They fall under the FDA. It’s super grey, but that’s how the rules are. They’re under a different portion of government regulation.

That seems wonky. Has there been pushback against that?

People do have that curiosity and most brands will have calorie information available on their website, but I think it’s more an advertising piece. Lighter products will sell based on that. It’s one of those things you can do if you want, but it’s not required by law. If you think of popular beers of our time, craft beers and IPAs, those beers tend to have more calories per, and it behooves those brands to stay away from an advertising piece like that because it might keep people away from those beers. It might be to their detriment.

Are these rules true of alcohol in other countries? How do they handle this?

Different countries have different rules that acknowledge the content of alcoholic beverages. Most have to do with the ABV as opposed to caloric content. If you go to Britain, they have on their cans and bottles the suggested amount of alcohol per day based on their government health services. And will note that a product might be ¾--I'm making up numbers, but let's say three portions per day is OK, so you can get a can of light beer and it will say .75 units versus something in higher strength might be two units. That’s how they label as opposed to a straight-up ‘This is 4 percent alcoholic and 400 calories with this many carbs.’ They label by per-day consumption as opposed to calories.

Regulations obviously don’t apply to calories, from the sound of it, but what about ABV listings? Are they volunteering that info?

Beer, there’s no rule about how they list percentages. For alcoholic beverages that fall under the FDA, once bottles reach--let's say a bottle of wine reaches 14-percent alcohol, they have to label themselves.

Is there a reason why?

When you get to that 14, just looking at percentages of alcohol—14 is sort of the threshold of a stronger wine, getting closer to that 20-percent-alcohol range where cordials and liqueurs fall. I imagine that 14 number was dreamed up to indicate it’s getting closer to a spirit. Fourteen, for a wine, is fairly standard and not out of control. But it’s just ‘getting in that direction.’

Will this ever change? It seems like an obvious health and safety hazard, for as much as we discuss drunk driving and have slightly more focus on health and wellness lately.

I believe the brands who are the largest are going to be the ones who mostly identify the [content] on their packages if they don’t already. If you look at mass-market brands, they do. It’s the smaller brands who have more to lose listing caloric counts or don’t have the infrastructure to list calorie counts for every beer they put out. It’s a matter of scale of the industry itself. 

Here at my day job, we talk about how craft beer is 85 percent of the conversation, but only 15 percent of the business. So, as much as we talk about the cool, funky things happening with breweries, they make up a small percentage of what's consumed. Those are the ones with higher alcohol beers as opposed to Coors and Miller that hang their hat on lighter products. They’re more transparent.