In a letter to the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) - which is currently mulling over what should be in the 2015 dietary guidelines for Americans - the Consumer Federation of America and the National Consumers League note that booze is the fifth largest source of calories for Americans over 19.
However, it is the “only major source of calories in the American diet that is not required to be labeled with the basic information needed to follow the Dietary Guidelines,” they point out. “And this is a significant omission in the effort to fight obesity.”
The current labeling requirements for alcoholic beverages are inadequate
With the exception of ‘lite’ beers, they add, “no alcoholic beverages are required to be labeled with calorie information... The current labeling requirements for alcoholic beverages are inadequate.”
To help consumers make informed choices, they argue, “Alcohol labels should be required to include the serving size in fluid ounces, the amount of alcohol per serving, the percent alcohol by volume, and calories and carbohydrates per serving."
Labels should include calories per serving
While the DGAC, USDA and FDA can't mandate alcohol labeling, note the groups, they can put pressure on the federal agency that regulates alcohol sales: The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.
“We understand that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) do not have jurisdiction over alcoholic beverage labeling.
“However, we ask that these agencies be mindful of long-standing efforts by consumer and public health groups to reform alcohol labeling at the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).
“A signal of support from USDA and HHS would be helpful.”
Dr Young: Many people forget that liquids, including alcohol, are a major source of calories
So what do nutrition experts think?
Portion control expert Lisa R. Young, PhD, RD, adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University, told FoodNavigator-USA that Nutrition Facts panels on alcoholic beverages made perfect sense.
She added: “I think it is an excellent idea. Providing calorie labels on alcoholic beverages can have a positive effect in raising consumer awareness about the caloric content of alcohol.
“A consumer can see the caloric content of different products, be able to compare products and compare calories of different serving sizes (ie a 12 oz versus a 24 oz beer can). Many people forget that liquids, including alcohol, are a major source of calories, and labeling can certainly help rise that awareness.”
Dr Adams-Hutt: DGAC has bigger fish to fry …
However Catherine Adams Hutt, PhD, RD, chief science & regulatory officer at Sloan Trends and principal at consultancy RdR Solutions, said she was less enthusiastic.
She said: “As a Registered Dietitian and wine consumer? No. I don't think this is a good idea.
“First, I don't think this issue should be a priority agenda item for the DGAC; there are much larger and pressing food and health issues, as well as policy matters that the Committee should be deliberating.
“Second, the choice by adults to consume or not consume alcoholic beverages is not one dictated primarily by health. Wine and other alcoholic beverages are social beverages and can fit into a healthy diet and be a part of personal weight management regime.”
It would be a shame to mire the activity of DGAC in a public skirmish over labeling booze
She added: “I believe that the menu labeling initiative already law that requires restaurant chains with more than 20 establishments to post calories on the menu boards next to the price will have a greater impact on calorie awareness than nutrition labeling of packaged food has over the past 30 years.
“It would be a shame to mire the activity of an important and august group of health experts as the DGAC members in a public skirmish over labeling booze. It would be a mockery played out each night in the bars around America and in comedic monologues on late night TV shows and Saturday Night Live."
Research on the effectiveness of calorie labeling varies widely
Elizabeth Lee, MS, RD, co-founder of Dietitians for Professional Integrity, said she too was not 100% behind the proposal, adding: "Though alcohol does contribute calories and appears to be a significant source of calories for the average American, putting a nutrition facts panel on them might give off the impression that alcohol is considered as a food source when it shouldn't be.
"Also, research on the effectiveness of calorie labeling varies widely. Many researchers have suggested that disclosing calorie information on food products hasn't yielded as much behavioral change in consumers as expected.
"It might be more practical and useful to focus efforts on continuing educational messages about the health consequences of excessive alcohol intake, and perhaps more importantly, direct more funds to create robust abuse prevention and rehabilitation programs."
Click here to read more about what RDs would like to see in the 2015 guidelines.