Why Doesn't Beer, Liquor, or Wine Display Calories?

Why Doesn't Beer, Liquor, or Wine Display Calories?
AP Photo/Michael Sohn
Why Doesn't Beer, Liquor, or Wine Display Calories?
AP Photo/Michael Sohn
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The vast majority of beers, liquors, and wines do not have nutrition labels, but though their calories are invisible to the eye, that doesn't mean they aren't there. A pint of your average IPA contains 250 calories. A glass of red wine holds 125. A shot of whiskey has about 100.

The secret to these drinks' caloric density is alcohol, which boasts seven calories per gram. That's second only to fat at 9 calories per gram, and much higher than protein or carbohydrate, each of which hold four.

So if alcohol is brimming with calories, why aren't they counted out on labels like all other foods and drinks?

The answer comes down to how alcoholic drinks are regulated. Since the end of prohibition, the vast majority of them haven't fallen under the purview of the Food and Drug Administration, but rather the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). The TTB has never required nutrition labels like those required by the FDA.

There have, of course, been attempts to alter this status quo. In 1993, the TTB solicited comments from the public and industry on whether their regulations should be amended to require nutrition facts on labels. The response was piddling, with just 55 comments submitted. Only seven consumers offered their opinions – most opposed nutrition labeling. Thirty-five more comments of opposition came from industry representatives. Calories in booze continued to go unlabeled.

Ten years later, another attempt was made. Joseph Stromberg described the outcome at Vox:

The Center for Science in the Public Interest and other groups lobbied the TTB to require nutrition labels. In response, manufacturers asked for voluntary labels. One of their arguments [laughably] was that putting nutrition facts on all bottles of alcohol would make consumers erroneously think that alcohol was nutritious.

In 2004, the agency basically sided with manufacturers, issuing guidelines that allowed them to list calories, carbs, protein, and fat — if they wanted. Only light beers that were advertised as "low carb" were required to show this information. [Comment mine.]

Almost no manufacturers volunteered to display their calories, as they were likely concerned that seeing calories would make people consume less, and thus cut into profits.

One could argue that consumers are entitled to this information, especially because – for those who drink – calories from alcohol constitute a surprisingly sizable proportion of their total calories consumed. A recent report found that the average Canadian drinker consumes 11.2% of their calories as alcohol. Over in Britain, a large survey of 8,864 individuals estimated that on heavy drinking days, men consume a quarter of their recommended daily calories from alcohol alone. Women imbibe a fifth. Another study of 7,375 drinkers in the U.S. found that the average binge drinking episode occurs roughly once a week and tallies in at 1,000 calories of booze. Given these consequential statistics, it's highly likely that most drinkers underestimate the calories they are drinking.

After nearly a quarter-century of refusing to call out their calories, many of the largest beer manufacturers are now shifting their stance. In 2016, citing a commitment to "quality and transparency," Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors, HeinekenUSA, Constellation Brands Beer Division, North American Breweries, and Craft Brew Alliance, which collectively produce more than 80% of the beer sold in the U.S., announced that they will include a small serving facts statement on their labels by the end of 2020.

Now we'll find out if consumers really wanted to know in the first place. Do drinkers actually enjoy the naiveté of nutritional ignorance as they imbibe to blissful oblivion?

And when nutrition facts will be front and center, could we perhaps see a new wave of health marketing in the world of drinking? Buy this "better-for you" beer! Yes, it's good for you! No, you don't want to drink too much!

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