The food and beverage industry is no stranger to dubious marketing claims. Every brand from Kellogg’s to Red Bull has been the subject of controversy over the supposed health benefits of their products.
Some of these claims—such as POM Wonderful’s assertion that pomegranate juice can stave off cancer, heart disease, and erectile dysfunction—have drawn cease-and-desist orders from federal regulators, while others continue unchallenged.
The whole point of regulating these marketing claims is to promote consumer awareness and prevent false advertising. It’s the same idea that inspired the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, which mandates nutrition labeling on most food products, and ensures that health claims meet standards set by the FDA.
Since the law was passed, food products have been subject to strict regulation, and some offenders have been hit with multi-million-dollar lawsuits.
But one category is completely exempt from these requirements: alcohol. Why? Calories from alcohol are empty calories, and alcohol itself—when abused—is the source of innumerable health problems. Shouldn't beer, wine, and liquor be subject to at least the same labeling requirements as pomegranate juice?
A number of consumer groups have been pushing the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB)—the regulatory body responsible for labeling—to impose such requirements. For at least ten years, organizations like the National Consumer League and Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) have campaigned for alcoholic beverages to disclose serving size and servings per container, as well as calories, carbohydrates, protein, and fat per serving on their labels.
Even some in the alcohol industry itself support such regulations. Diageo—the British alcohol conglomerate that owns Smirnoff, Johnnie Walker, and Guinness, among dozens of other prominent brands—has lobbied the TTB to allow listing of nutrition information on alcoholic products.
Yep, allow. Until recently, that familiar “Nutrition Facts” table was actually banned from being included on alcoholic beverages because regulators feared they might be misconstrued as “nutritious.” But last year, the Treasury Department (of which the TTB is a division) ruled that alcohol producers can begin to voluntarily disclose this kind of information on their products.
The decision was viewed as a win for consumer groups and companies like Diageo, though many nutritionists and industry watchdogs have been quick to decry it as little more than a marketing tool. Since the labels are voluntary, drink makers are free to only include them on the lowest-carb, lowest-calorie beverages.
But others in the industry are skeptical of the trend, even if they support and potentially benefit from voluntary nutrition labeling. Trade group The Beer Institute, for example, has supported listing calories, carbs, protein, fat content, and alcohol by volume (ABV), but opposes the idea of establishing serving sizes for beer.
The issue becomes even more complicated when you consider that the exact contents of some alcoholic beverages—such as wine and whiskey—can vary due to environmental factors. That means disclosing precise calorie or carb counts would require expensive compliance hurdles, testing, and custom labels for each batch or vintage. Accordingly, distillers and vintners want to be able to generalize nutrition details.
Consumers, on the other hand, generally agree that something ought to be done: In 2007, Shape Up America! conducted a survey of more than 500 adult Americans, and found roughly 90 percent support mandatory labeling on all beer, wine, and spirits.
To be certain, this is a complex issue, with plenty of political and logistical hurdles to clear. Perhaps it's no surprise that the TTB has been dragging its feet for the past ten years. But you should probably expect to see more and more nutrition labels on alcoholic products in the near future. Who knows—it may even help inform your diet.