Ingredient info and calorie counts: How the EU alcohol industry is working to give consumers more information about their drinks

By Rachel Arthur

- Last updated on GMT

How best to convey information to consumers? Pic:getty/gilaxia
How best to convey information to consumers? Pic:getty/gilaxia

Related tags Nutritional labelling Alcohol European union Eu Food information regulation calories Nutrition

New wine labelling requirements come into force in the EU this week: requiring a list of ingredients and nutritional information to be included on wine labels. Beer and spirits, however, aren't covered by this regulation. What’s going on?

In the EU, alcohol does not legally have to provide nutrition and ingredient labeling in the same way food does. And yet the last few years have seen increased acceptance that such products really should​ provide this information in some shape or form.

But efforts to do so vary between different sectors. And this week, new regulation for the wine industry comes into effect: which will mandate that ingredients and nutritional information are included on wine labels. That's against the backdrop of voluntary initiatives in the beer and spirits sectors.

Wine: Legislation provides clarity

In the EU, food and non-alcoholic drinks are covered by the Food Information to Consumers 1160/2011​ (FIC) Regulation: which mandates the inclusion of certain information on pack (nutritional information, allergens, origins, etc).

Alcohol above 1.2% ABV, however, is not covered by the FIC.

But consumers are demanding more and more transparency about their products. They're also looking to moderate calorie intake and alcohol consumption - and, accordingly, are more attentive to what and how much they're drinking. 

From its side, the alcohol industry has long realised that it is in its interest to give consumers what they want. And it actually could also help the industry communicate the nature of its products better: beer, for example, is made from four simple, natural ingredients - and brewers have decided it's important to promote that​ against a backdrop of sugar and additives in other drinks categories). 

Following a series of separate voluntary pledges from different sectors, a milestone came in 2018 when the alcohol industry came together to make self-regulation commitments​ to the EU for the list of ingredients and nutritional declaration on alcohol. This resulted in Memorandums of Understanding signed between the EU and spiritsEUROPE and The Brewers of Europe in 2019. 

The MoUs are not legally binding: but do set out clearly what information producers should provide to consumers, and how.

But the wine industry is now taking this to the next level, with new regulations on wine labelling.

Regulation (EU) 2021/2117 published on 6 December 2021, requires as from 8 December 2023, the compulsory labelling of the list of ingredients and the nutrition declaration of wines and aromatized wine products.

EU wine labelling rules

Wine sold in the EU should contain the following information:

  • the designation of the category of grapevine product
  • the term ‘protected designation of origin’ (PDO) or ‘protected geographical indication’ (PGI), and its name, for wines registered as geographical indications
  • the actual alcoholic strength by volume
  • the indication of provenance
  • the name of the bottler or the name of the producer or vendor
  • the net content
  • the sugar content in case of sparkling wine categories
  • the nutrition declaration
  • the list of ingredients
  • the substances causing allergies or intolerances
  • the minimum date of durability for grapevine products which have undergone a de-alcoholisation treatment.

The regulation comes into effect on December 8: however, rules will apply to all wines and wine products obtained from the harvest 2024 (while all wines produced before 8 December 2023 will still be exempted from the new rules until stocks are exhausted).

Why does this only apply to wine? It’s because the EU wine sector decided it was the best way to cohesively provide ingredients and nutritional information.

“The reason it only applies only to these products is because, we as a sector, we proactively requested to EU legislators to impose us, in our specific legislation, the communication of the list of ingredients and the nutritional declaration,” explained Ignacio Sanchez Recarte, secretary general of the Comité Européen des Entreprises Vins, which represents Europe’s large wine sector.

“It could sound crazy: but the reasons of our requests are historical. In 2018 we presented our self-regulatory proposal, but at the same time we requested the adoption of specific legislation. The wine sector is highly atomised and composed by Micro and SMEs, and, on the one hand it will be difficult to work on a self-regulation basis and, on the other, we want legal certainty (we have a complex legal framework, and we needed this new piece to fit the puzzle).”

Voluntary initiatives 

Brewers and distillers, however, have found that voluntary initiatives - enshrined in the EU Memorandum of Understanding - have been a successful way to convey information.

The spirits industry is committed to providing energy information on pack, while ingredients and full nutrition declaration can be provided digitally.

Key elements of the 2018 proposal

  • Nutrition information and ingredients lists to be provided: in tailored and meaningful ways.
  • The information will be given to consumers off-label and/or on the label. Off-label information will be easily accessible from the label itself - such as QR codes, web links or new technologies.
  • The energy value or the full nutrition declaration will be provided in line with requirements set out in Regulation (EU) 1169/2011, which lays down that this should be provided per 100ml but also allows the possibility to additionally provide the information per portion.
  • The list of ingredients should be provided abiding by EU 1169/2011 and EU vertical regulations.
  • Sector specific annexes provide guidance for the nuances that apply to each industry

"Spirits are some of the most tightly regulated food products, with very specific production and labelling standards already in place for many decades. To compliment these high standards, and given that it was unlikely in 2019 that EU labelling rules would be changed anytime soon, producers decided to move ahead with an ambitious self-regulatory consumer information commitment that is enshrined in our Memorandum of Understanding (MoU)," explained Ulrich Adam, Director General of spirits organization spiritsEUROPE.

So far, around 66% of total volumes of spirits feature energy information physically on-pack. When it comes to company size, however, the eight big international company signatories to the MoU (accounting for around 92,583,900 hectolitres of spirits a year) have a compliance rate of 86%.

That highlights the main challenge in boosting compliance, said Adam.

“It was always clear and understood that larger producers would be among the first adopters, as label changes require considerable investments and planning time. And this is what happened in the early implementation phase of the MoU.

"Over time, we have seen that many small and medium-sized producers have also started to offer this information voluntarily – the mobilisation across the sector today is huge. At the same time, given that we are talking about a self-regulatory approach, it was always clear that, ultimately, it was up to a company’s own consideration if, when, and how to provide the information.

"For many smaller and micro distillers, further time will be needed to make these changes.”

Beer reaps the rewards of long-standing initiatives

Brewers also champion the success of their voluntary initiatives. Again, as with spirits, time has helped increase adoption: The Brewers of Europe set out its commitment to voluntarily provide FIC information well back in 2015, with heavyweights Heineken, Carlsberg and AB InBev among those backing the pledge from the start.

Fast-forward to 2022 and the results are impressive: 95% of beer volumes sold in cans and bottles included a list of ingredients, while 88% of beer volumes sold in cans and bottles labeled energy values.

Moving forward to mandatory legislation (as could happen with any upcoming revision of FIC) however, needs to be carefully thought out, highlights industry association The Brewers of Europe.

“When it comes to any EU legislative initiative to mandate the provision of this information, we have made it clear that we would support an EU legislative initiative to mandate ingredients and energy labelling, provided that it covers all alcoholic beverages and replicates the mandatory particulars already in the legislation in terms of how this should be labelled, to ensure objective comparability across all products," explained Simon Spillane, secretary general of The Brewers of Europe.

"Our view is that in mandatory labelling legislation, priority should be given to the essential, clear, objective, comparable, evidence-based facts on the product itself that consumers need to know to guide their decisions on purchase, consumption and disposal of the product.

"From a health perspective, these include the product name and ABV, allowing consumers to take alcohol strength into consideration at point of purchase; the ingredients list, as for all foods and beverages, including all potential allergens; energy value in kj/kcal per 100ml as for all other beverages, also reflecting the prioritisation given to this nutrition value in the current EU rules; and the safe storage guidance, serving information and date marking.”

The e-future: QR codes and electronic labels

The focus of the initiatives has always been on making sure consumers have access to information about their products. Yet the amount of space on a beverage's label is limited.

One thing all alcohol sectors have in common, therefore, is the agreement that information can be delivered electronically via a QR code or similar technology.

It might sound like a cop-out: but the associations highlight that this actually allows consumers to explore much more in-depth information - if they wish to do so (not everyone, after all, wants to know the exact calorie count of their drink on a Friday evening).

“The label, even if it is often the most direct touchpoint with the consumer, contains by its nature limited space," notes Spillane of The Brewers of Europe.

"So we are also clear that whilst beer labels may be used where appropriate to provide additional nutrition information and clear contraindications in line with existing prevention campaigns, other means and levers, including multi-stakeholder awareness initiatives, brief interventions and digital platforms (including those linked to from the label), are better placed to provide greater detail, broader health-context and personalised information.”

Spirits and wine have seen e-labels adopted rapidly, thanks to joint efforts to launch new tech.

“Spirits, together with wines, have become pioneers in developing product-specific e-label solutions in the past 4 years, culminating in the launch of our joint e-label platform U-label two years ago,” explained Adam of spiritsEUROPE.

“Given the novelty of the concept, and the manifold technological challenges that had to be overcome, the early phase of e-label development took slightly longer than expected.

“At the same time, the last two years have seen rapid adoption levels of e-label solutions that are in full swing today. This is a significant achievement, even if the roll-out phase is of course not fully completed yet.”

The new EU wine regulations do give producers the choice to indicate the list of ingredients and the nutrition declaration either on the physical label of the wine or through a dedicated electronic means, such as a QR code.

Allergenic substances will continue to be presented on the physical label.

The EU advises wine producers that the information provided online 'should be as clearly visible and accessible to consumers as the information provided on a physical label'.

"The word ‘ingredients’ should be easily identified by consumers in the label and not confused with other electronic means containing marketing messages," notes its guidance.

But the CEEV is concerned about the last-minute uncertainty and concerns generated by the different interpretations of the new rules.

In ‘good faith and in compliance with Regulation (EU) 2021/2117 and with all official information available’, many wine operators have identified QR-codes with the ISO 2760 symbol and printed hundreds of millions of labels. But the CEEV says wineries face different and contradictory interpretations about this implementation.

“Wine companies were supportive and fully committed to adapt their labels to the new regulation as soon as possible and did their best to prepare themselves on time.

Mauricio González Gordon, President of CEEV, said: “The uncertainty is particularly acute for sparkling wines, which, because of their method of production, will be almost immediately concerned by the new legislation.”

“In this uncertain context, we request the European Commission, Member States and the European Parliament to work together to agree on a shared and harmonized interpretation on the identification of the QR-code” added Recarte of the CEEV. “While this work is in progress, we request the suspension of the interpretation in the Commission guidelines of how the QR-code needs to be identified on the label, and that labels with a QR code can be used without being challenged by control authorities.”

Even if labels are turning away from their physical format, labeling requirements remain a sticky subject. 

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