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Alcohol nutrition & ingredients labelling: Can the industry rise to the challenge?

By Rachel Arthur contact

- Last updated on GMT

Pic:iStock
Pic:iStock
Should your bottle of wine tell you how many calories you are consuming? Should your beer list its ingredients? Given consumers’ increased scrutiny over what they eat – and drink – the answer is yes. But of course, nothing is ever simple. 

Momentum for nutrition and ingredients labelling on alcoholic beverages has been increasing for some time. In Europe brewing heavyweights AB InBev, Heineken and Carlsberg have been backing a pledge from the Brewers of Europe to provide such information since March 2015.​ Elsewhere around the world, Treasury Wine Estates, Diageo, Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors and Heineken USA​ are among those who have made similar pledges.

On Monday (March 13) the European Commission released its long-awaited report on nutritional and ingredients labelling for alcoholic beverages.​ It did not insist on mandatory labelling: but instead challenged the industry to come up with a harmonized self-regulatory proposal on providing information on ingredients and nutrition on all alcoholic beverages within a year.

But does what works for a glass of wine work for a pint of beer? And what about a shot of spirits? Could this prove to be more than a pint-sized challenge?

The key questions now will include what the reference point should be (per serve or per 100ml?) and the best way to communicate such information to consumers (on pack or online?).

Who wants to know how many calories are in a beer, anyway?

beer brewery

Consumers are increasingly conscious of health and wellness and what they are eating and drinking. Alcohol is considered something of a treat, which may exempt it from the same level of scrutiny as other food and beverages. One can be sure there are still a significant number of consumers who quite frankly don’t want to know how many calories are in their beer, thank you very much.

But the health and wellness trend is​ relevant for the alcoholic beverage industry. People are drinking less alcohol these days. ‘Skinny cocktails’ and low alcohol beers are seeing increased interest. To many consumers, calorie counts are just as important in the evening as they are during the day.

In its report yesterday, the European Commission​ noted the industry’s position on nutrition and calorie labelling has ‘evolved significantly’. Once, businesses were opposed to any additional labelling requirements. Today, the industry recognizes that consumers have the right to know what’s in their drinks. One could even argue this has become an expectation –  it is slightly strange that people can know everything about the food they are eating and nothing about the booze they are drinking.

And there’s also a recognition that this can even work in the industry’s favour: with many drinks having a relatively simple clean label list of ingredients and potentially with a calorie count lower than a consumer might presume.

Challenges: 100ml or per serve?

The FIC regulation (EU Regulation 1169/2011 on the provision of food information to consumers, to be precise) requires food and non-alcoholic beverages to give nutritional values per 100g or 100ml (alcoholic beverages over 1.2% ABV are exempt from this regulation).

The Brewers of Europe, therefore, argue that the nutritional labelling benchmark for alcoholic beverages should follow the same rules.

'Let's not re-invent the wheel!'

The Brewers of Europe

“This reference point is widely understood by consumers across the EU as the robust standard for comparing,” ​the trade association told us yesterday as it responded to the Commission’s report. “Let’s not reinvent the wheel!”

In fact, FIC requires alcoholic drink companies that voluntarily provide ingredients and calorie information to do so per 100ml, it adds.

“The European Commission is of the opinion that the same rules should apply to all alcoholic beverages and noted that most stakeholders see no reason why the rules should be different from other food and drink products,” ​adds the association.   

But for spirits, this seemingly straight-forward logic is potentially problematic. A 30ml serve of gin can be expected to contain around 70 calories. The 100ml reference point, however, would therefore be inflated to 233 calories – which is far more than found in an individual drink.

Calories per serve

A 175ml glass (175ml) of wine (13% ABV): 159 calories

A pint (568ml) of beer (4% ABV): 182 calories

A 25ml serve of spirits (40% ABV): 61 calories

A pint (568ml) of cider (4.5% ABV): 216 calories

Alcopop bottle (275ml): 170 calories

Source: drinkaware.co.uk

A brief glance at this reference point could put off consumers, argues spiritsEUROPE, which is calling for nutritional information to be displayed per serve (‘Let’s inform, not mislead!’​ argues the body, which, to be fair, is the whole point of the labelling exercise).

spiritsEUROPE confirmed to us yesterday that they see this point as the biggest challenge in creating the self-regulatory framework the Commission is asking for.

“There are several challenges, but there most important will be to have the ‘per serve’ as the most relevant reference to be used. The second will be to convince everyone to move from information on labels to other, more modern and more flexible means of communication with our customers,”​ it says (more on this second point in a minute).

“We will be constructively looking at information consumers will understand and use and we believe it will be possible to come up with a proposal but we do not underestimate the difficulty in finding a compromise across all sectors.”

Both arguments (for 100ml and per serve) are convincing. Is the solution simply to include both? AB InBev's tapintoyourbeer.com​ site allows you to access nutritional information per 100ml and per other sizes (per 330ml bottle, for example). Another very handy calculator with a similar function is the UK’s drinkaware.co.uk​ site, which tells you the calorie and unit count of your beverage, along with – intriguingly – the burger equivalent.

Space

That brings us to another point: where to put all this information.

istock beer football
These consumers are, of course, looking up the nutritional information of their beers rather than football scores

When The Brewers of Europe made its commitment in March 2015 to provide nutritional and ingredients information it said that brewers could do this either ‘on pack and/or online’.

It’s a view echoed by the UK’s Wine and Spirits Trade Association (WSTA), which says that – in this day and age – consumers are perfectly capable of looking up information online.

Trying to cram more information on product labels which have limited space is a backward step,” ​it argues. “We should not be using 20th​ century methods on a 21st​ century issue.” 

Space on pack is at a premium, and all this information can take up a lot of room. And yet one can argue that there is a certain immediacy about having such information displayed clearly on pack when you pick up your beer/wine/spirits.

Do people really want to play around trying to load nutritional websites on their phone when they’re at the pub? The tapintoyourbeer.com and drinkaware.co.uk sites are very impressive – but how many people actually know about them?

AB InBev on creating the 'new norm'

Addressing the challenges of both space and appropriate reference point, AB InBev, the world’s largest brewer, says it is going ‘above and beyond’ expectations and providing an example for others to follow – making full consumer information on beer ‘the new normal’.

To its credit, pledges include:

  • Nutritional and ingredients information on at least 80% of beer it sells in the EU by the end of 2017 (the ‘Big 7’: energy, fat, saturated fats, carbohydrates, sugars, proteins &  salt)
  • self-regulatory-proposal-for-nutrition-ingredients-labels_strict_xxl
    AB InBev labels
    Placing full ingredients list and energy information on primary packs ​(including the big 7 where space allows) and all information on secondary packs.
  • Providing nutritional information both per 100ml and per typical service size​ (ie the can or bottle)
  • All information online via tapintoyourbeer.com (values per 100ml and in every portion size that is available in the selected country). Beer labels contain the link to this site so that consumers can access information with smartphones.

Take up the challenge

The fact that nutrition and ingredients labelling has not been made mandatory in this week's report comes as a relief to anyone wary of too many rules and regulations: the WSTA welcomes the decision not to ‘force’ mandatory labelling and give the industry the chance to take the lead.

For some, the lack of mandatory nutrition and ingredients labelling is a disappointment: European consumer group BEUC says it ‘doubts that voluntary initiatives will bridge the unacceptable information gap between alcoholic and other drinks’.

The drinks industry should take this as a challenge and prove that it can come up with an effective proposal. I think we can all drink to that. 

Rachel Arthur has been writing for BeverageDaily since 2014. As a good unbiased journalist she is equally partial to a glass of wine, pint of beer, or a good gin and tonic.

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