Alcohol industry balks at counting calories

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The calorie-counters out there already know how many calories are in that Diet Coke (zero). But wouldn't it be nice to know exactly how many calories are in the rum or whiskey that you mix with your cola?

Or in that White Russian?

Or that towering, 20-ounce Long Island iced tea? On second thought, maybe it's better not to know, which is why there hasn't been a public clamor for more nutritional information on the back of that bottle of booze.

Spirits, as well as wine, are among the few foodstuff items that don't bear a nutrition label of substance. The only thing a booze label is required to convey to the consumer is the "proof," or alcohol content, in the bottle. Beer bottles aren't much more illustrative, sometimes offering up the number of calories and alcohol percentage and possibly carbohydrate levels, but not much else.

"In the year 2011, it's sort of bizarre that alcohol's the only consumable product sold in the United States that you can't tell what's inside the bottle," Guy L. Smith, executive vice president in North America for Diageo, said to The Associated Press.

Federal regulators may want that to change, and have been debating improved alcohol labeling since the early years of the George W. Bush administration. But the three affected industries -- spirits, wine and beer makers -- don't always get along, and they have been at odds over how to best display nutritional information and serving sizes.

The issue is revived from time to time, and the National Consumers League revived it again, late in 2010, when it issued a statement urging the U.S. Tax and Trade Bureau to get its act together.

The Tax and Trade Bureau is the federal agency with authority over alcohol labels, and it continues to debate a new set of alcohol labeling regulations. Most recently, the bureau considered a rule that would have required an "alcohol facts" label on all bottles (or cans, or boxes) of alcohol, but it declined to formally endorse that rule.

"The drinking public needs certain basic information on beer, wine and spirits labels," said consumers league Executive Director Sally Greenberg. "With a severe nationwide obesity epidemic, there is no excuse for not having calories listed on all alcohol beverage labels."

The group also suggested that the nine college students who fell ill last year after drinking too much of a caffeinated alcoholic beverage might not have made that mistake if they knew the exact contents, and serving size, of the drink they were imbibing. (One such brand is Four Loko, made at the former Rolling Rock brewery.)

Suggesting that the college kids might have had less to drink if only they'd known that a can of Four Loko represented, say, 2.5 servings of alcohol, rather than one serving, is a bit like saying that pigs might eat fewer truffles if they knew about the saturated fat levels. But the National Consumers League's larger point is that a wide cross-section of imbibers -- from calorie-counters to diabetics to those with food allergies -- would benefit from improved nutritional disclosure on alcohol bottle labels.

Consensus seems far away. The beer industry wants to update the notion that a serving of booze represents 1.5 ounces; otherwise, the 100 or so calories in a 12-ounce bottle of beer might suffer by comparison to an artificially low calorie measurement for spirits.

The wine industry has a separate beef: With all of the varietals and blends that go into making a particular vintage in a particular year, a winery would have to calculate nutritional information for every new vintage. Instead, it wants to use broader estimates in its labeling, the rough number of calories and carbs in each serving.

And what's the point of nutritional information on a bottle of booze when most mixed drinks are imbibed at bars and restaurants, where no one is going to look at the bottle anyway?

Meanwhile, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a pro-business think tank, says the labeling standards are so much hogwash and wouldn't do anything to curb our obesity problem, as the consumers league suggests.

"While benefits are unclear, such mandates pose drawbacks for consumers -- both monetary and aesthetic," the institute says. In other words, people like pretty labels on their bottles of wine, and a black-and-white "alcohol facts" box would muck that up.

The Enterprise Institute also points out that nutritional information can be found online, in some cases. Diageo, the international beverage distributor, runs a website called drinkIQ.com that offers fat, calorie, protein, carb and serving information (all of those measurements are based on a serving size of 1.5 ounces, another point of contention with the beer industry, which says 1.5 ounces doesn't accurately reflect the amount of booze people imbibe in a drink).

Diageo's ingredient information is more hit-and-miss. For example, the site tells us Baileys Original Irish Cream contains "fresh dairy cream, sugar, alcohol, maltodextrin, milk products, cocoa extracts and flavours, Irish whiskey, coloring: 150b, emulsifier: E471, acidity regulator: E331."

But for Guinness, another Diageo brand, ingredients are not available. For Johnnie Walker, the ingredients disclosure is just a description of how Scotch is made. Tanqueray gin is made of "water, alcohol, juniper berries and other natural botanicals"; for Black Haus, a blackberry schnapps brand, the website says the only ingredient is "Blackberry Schnapps Liqueur."

The consumers league says inaction at the federal level is out of step with national dietary trends, which put more nutritional information in the hands of consumers.

"Label reform for alcoholic beverages is a no-brainer," Ms. Greenberg said in the statement.



Embury, the old-fashioned cocktail lounge (read: no vodka, no mixers from a soda gun) housed beneath the Firehouse club in the Strip District, is the winner of the "Nightclub & Bar" magazine award for "Small Wonder Bar of the Year" in 2010. Embury is owned by Spencer Warren, and named after famed cocktail author and historian David Embury.

Last year's "small wonder" award went to Manifesto, a cocktail bar in Kansas City, Mo.



Boyd & Blair, the top-end potato vodka distilled in a former glass factory along Route 8, has entered a new distribution agreement with The Country Vintner of Ashland, Va. The agreement means that Boyd & Blair soon will be sold in Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida and Washington, D.C.

Boyd & Blair, the first distilled spirit to be produced in Pittsburgh, already is available in eight other states. The company is owned by Prentiss Orr and Barry Young. Visit boydandblair.com.


If you have bar-, spirit-, or cocktail-related news, or a new drink menu, contact Bill Toland: btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625.


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