Last month, British alcohol giant Diageo announced a global commitment to voluntarily begin to place nutritional information per serving size on packaging for many of its products. And even if you don't know the name Diageo, you surely know its brands, which include Guinness, Johnnie Walker, Smirnoff, and Captain Morgan, as well as more esoteric gems such as Talisker and Lagavulin.
And a couple of weeks after Diageo made its announcement, the Brewers of Europe—a trade group that represents 29 national brewing associations, and nearly 4,000 breweries—stated that its members were pledging to voluntarily provide nutritional information on either their packaging or online resources for the European market.
You may never have realized it unless you're a habitual label-reader, but hardly any alcohol products here in the United States and elsewhere feature any kind of nutritional information or calorie counts on their bottles or cans, because doing so—in most cases—is voluntary. If you're drinking right now (be honest), take a look at the bottle; you'll likely find nada.
Whether you're plowing down cold ones at a football game or savoring a Scotch by the fire, you're probably not thinking about the nutritional value of your adult beverage. And why would you want to? No one is under the delusion that alcohol is a health drink. But if every time you went for a sip of raspberry-flavored alcopop you were reminded that it has 220 empty calories and a load of artificial flavors, it might make you think twice about going for that third drink at happy hour instead of going to the gym.
So if the goal is to sell alcohol, why voluntarily list something that might make you want to drink less? Alcohol producers say they want to be transparent and are responding to consumer demand. After all, we do live in the age of gluten-free and organic mania. But it may be that alcohol producers are toeing the line by trying to appeal to the health-conscious while knowing full well that the masses don't put calorie count first when it comes to drinking.
'Why is beer treated differently from soft drinks, water, juices or non-alcoholic beer? When it comes to ingredients and nutritional information, we've got nothing to hide.'
"We are talking about a top-down decision," says Spiros Malandrakis, an analyst of alcoholic drinks at Euromonitor International. "I do not think there is a bottom-up consumer demand for such labels. Millennial and Gen-X generations have an interest in this kind of thing—we see that in packaged foods. But I have to remind corporations that the way people think is not necessarily the way we eat. Drinking has been a hedonistically driven activity for the last 5,000 years, and I do not foresee people changing that primarily based on the nutritional value."
The Brewers of Europe say that brands want to provide labeling in order to create a more level playing field with other beverages that are required to print nutritional information on their packaging. "Essentially, our motivation is that we are in an age where people expect transparency from industry about the products that are on the market. There is a consumer interest for this information, and [as] for the brewing sector, we don't feel comfortable that beers are treated differently," said Simon Spillane, a representative of the Brewers of Europe. "Why is beer treated differently from soft drinks, water, juices or non-alcoholic beer? When it comes to ingredients and nutritional information, we've got nothing to hide." (And he's right. Most beer is just water, a starch [such as malted barley], yeast, and hops.)
Spillane said that the major breweries in Europe have been very supportive of the pledge, and a representative of Heineken—the largest brewer in Europe—wrote in an email that the company will be listing ingredients and calories on the labels of its almost 200 beer brands with additional information such as sugar and fat content (zero and zero, usually) available online. Several major alcohol producers already list nutritional information on their websites—on platforms such as Diageo's DrinkIQ and Anheuser-Busch InBev's Tap Into Your Beer—but if the goal is to provide consumers with readily accessible nutritional information, you'd think it can't get much clearer than a label on the bottle. Listing information online may be convenient for the willfully ignorant and, in turn, producers. But Spillane said that if beers do forego nutritional labeling, the packaging will have to clearly direct consumers to the nutritional information elsewhere. "This isn't about hiding information on websites," he said.
Here in the United States, though, efforts by consumer-advocacy groups to require nutritional labeling have been thwarted in the past. Diageo has supported labeling for some time, but due to various objections from industry groups over issues such as what constitutes a serving size and the difficulties of providing information for every vintage of wine, nutritional labeling is optional in most cases. And so, conveniently for alcohol producers, calorie counts aren't listed on most alcoholic products (except for light beer, which is required to state calories on the can or bottle, and a few other exceptions for drinks such as cider under the current byzantine regulatory system. When you consider that a 1.5-ounce shot of 80-proof whiskey is about 100 calories, and a cocktail such as a Manhattan can include more than that before adding in vermouth, it's easy to see how after just a few smooth and tasties you can easily consume north of 500 calories.
Diageo and the Brewers of Europe are trying to pull ahead of the pack with the new labels,, letting consumers know—at the very least—what's in their products juxtaposed with a sea of beverages that offer no such information. There may be an advantage in that. "There are many reasons consumers select one brand or another," a Diageo spokesperson wrote in an email. "This is about providing information we know consumers are looking for. If these labels mean they buy more Diageo brands, then of course, that is great."
Malandrakis, however, sees little change in consumer habits coming from the labeling. "Governments can go back to their voting base and say that this way they managed consumption and made people aware, and corporations can go to shareholders and governments [to claim social responsibility]," he said.
How multinationals approach nutritional labels is one thing, and the presence of nutritional labels on Diageo products in the United States may lead to increased consumer demand for mandatory labeling.
But for small craft alcohol producers, labels can present different challenges. Craft brewers might experiment with recipes more often, changing ingredients and therefore nutritional values, which would necessitate frequent and expensive new nutritional testing and labels.
Sociable Cider Werks, a small cider brewery in Minneapolis, has seen customers come into its tasting room with misguided conceptions of the supposed health benefits of hard cider. "For the number of people who drink cider because it's gluten-free and think that's synonymous with low-carb, that is not the case," said Jim Watkins, Sociable Cider Werks' cofounder. "I don't care why they drink it as long as they enjoy it, but if they think that it's a diet drink, that's incorrect."
Sociable Cider Werks has recently begun canning, and Watkins will find out soon if a nutritional label will clear up misconceptions among Minneapolis cider-drinkers. That's because cider, made from apples, falls under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration, and requires such labeling. But to illustrate the complexity of current laws, one of Sociable Cider Werks' experimental ciders contains malted barley, bringing it under the jurisdiction of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, along with other beers, liquors, and most wines.
Sociable Cider Werks recognized that having one cider with a nutritional label and another without a label might confuse consumers, so it will be voluntarily including nutritional information on the cider that contains malted barley. It also means that the small producer will have the unenviable task of dealing with two separate federal agencies in regards to this issue.
For Sociable Cider Werks, mandatory labeling issued by the TTB would come as a relief, as long as serving sizes were alcohol-specific and reflective of the amount of alcohol in a serving. As Malandrakis points out, working in measurements of 100 milliliters—the measurement the Brewers of Europe plans to use for beer—spirits would look practically toxic by comparison.
But mandatory labeling is far from inevitable, and even if it does happen, don't worry about a buzzkill. Many of us will probably ignore it anyway, and if you want to get into the whole "health" thing, the relevant information will be at your fingertips.
And that might not be so bad.