Will alcohol be required to carry calorie & ingredient labels in the US? What brands need to know about the road ahead

By Rachel Arthur

- Last updated on GMT


Related tags Us Alcohol labeling

Consumer and health groups are pushing for nutrition, ingredient and allergen labeling on alcoholic beverages: and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) has been gathering opinions from stakeholders on the subject. What happens next?

Unlike other food and beverages - which are regulated by the FDA - most alcohol labels are regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).

And for the main part, alcoholic beverages aren’t required to provide information such as calories or ingredients information.

But now, consumers are increasingly interested in having that kind of information - or at least in being able to access it if they want. Europe has already made considerable moves towards making providing information for consumers the norm - and now the US appears to be on the same path. 

In February 2022, The Department of Treasury's report on 'Competition in the Markets for Beer, Wine, and Spirits' recommended that the TTB revive or initiate rulemaking in this area: specifically looking at whether labels should disclose 'per-serving alcohol and nutritional information, major food allergens, and/or ingredients'. And over the last few months, the TTB has been gathering opinions from stakeholders​ on the subject. What happens next - and what could it mean for brands?

Consumers want more information about what they drink

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has long campaigned for more information on alcohol: taking up the mantle as far back as 2003 when the public health advocate petitioned the TTB (alongside the Consumer Federation of America, National Consumers League and a coalition of 66 other organizations) to fix the ‘flawed system’.

Boston Beer Company produces Samuel Adams Boston Lager and Truly Hard Seltzer, both 5% ABV. Sam Adams is a beer regulated by the TTB and does not have to display calories or ingredients. Truly Hard Seltzer, however, falls under FDA regulation and must display this information.

It believes that consumers should have more information about what they're drinking. And it also highlights that the evolution of the hard seltzer market has created a bizarre system which adds new impetus to look at regulations again (depending on how they're made, some hard seltzers need to follow TTB rules, other FDA rules, and some need to follow both TTB and FDA rules).

In the US, the TTB has a voluntary system in place, which allows companies to put nutrition and allergen information on products if they so choose.

But the CSPI is dismissive of the value of this system. In February, it assessed 130 top beer and wine brands sold in the US and found ‘low levels of uptake of labels’ among these brands.​ 

For example, 28% of beer brands analysed included the voluntary ‘Serving Facts’ panel proposed by the TTB (outlining ABV and calories), while none of the wine brands surveyed did (beer brands in general were far more likely to provide information than wine brands).

It also found a lack of clear and consistent information. Some 28% of beer brands provided a definition of a serving size or number of servings per container: but only 4% of wine brands contained this information (and in fact their definition of a 'glass of wine' ranged from a 5oz glass of 7% ABV wine to a 6oz glass of 13% ABV wine).

Furthermore, the CSPI points out that this information is very much small print on bottles: ‘none of the labels with serving information were formatted for optimal noticeability and readability’.

This, says the organization, underscores the need for mandatory labeling.

The CSPI is pushing for the TTB to publish rulemakings by June 2024.​ 

Will that happen? The TTB told us it has sought input from a wide range of stakeholders, and appreciates the 'significant stakeholder participation' as it actively reviews more than 5,000 comments already received. It said it couldn't comment further at this time, other than to emphasize that it is a priority for the bureau.

Key questions the TTB is asking:

1. Do consumers believe that they are adequately informed by the information currently provided on alcohol beverage labels?

2. Is alcohol content per serving, and nutritional information (such as calories, carbohydrates, protein, and fat) per serving important for consumers in deciding whether to purchase or consume a particular alcohol beverage? 

3. What types of per-serving nutritional information, such as calories, carbohydrates, protein, and fat, should be included?

4. Would requiring this information on labels be expected to increase the cost of the products and, if so, by how much? To what extent are businesses already following voluntary guidelines for this information? Could QR codes be used?

5. How would any new mandatory labeling requirements particularly affect small businesses and new businesses entering the marketplace?

Spirits: An already lengthy pre-approval process

The alcohol industry is - by and large - supportive of the idea of providing information to consumers. The question is how this should be done effectively, and how to ensure extra rules and regulations - if put in place - don't stifle innovation or unfairly penalize smaller businesses.

Added to that is the fact that getting a new alcohol product on the market is already a long and complex procedure.

In the US, spirits are already obliged to provide information such as alcohol content, the nature of the spirit, name and address of supplier and a government health warning, and the presence of several ingredients (for example, FD&C Yellow No. 5, cochineal extract or carmine, sulfites, and aspartame).

In fact: "distilled spirits are one of the most highly regulated products in the United States, subject to extensive federal and state regulatory schemes," according to Courtney Armour,  the chief legal officer for the council.  

Furthermore, distillers do provide further information on a voluntary basis. "For example, most distillers already publish major food allergen information on labels under the voluntary TTB program, as suppliers want to ensure that consumers are aware of any potential allergens that might be present in the final product, such as added milk or peanuts," continued Armour, in the council's submission to the TTB.

"Many spirits producers also currently provide nutrient information. And, this number will soon rise as DISCUS Director Members, who represent the majority of all spirits sales in the country, committed to provide consumers with nutrient content information, such as serving size, number of calories and grams of carbs, protein, and fat per serving size, through either of the currently TTB-approved formats (Serving Facts panel or statement of average analysis) on new labels by June 2024."

Such information will be provided either on the label or via a URL or QR code.

The Council's main concern is over the pre-approval process that spirits must go through with the TTB (where products must be approved before going on the market, in contrast with non-alcoholic foods which are simply regulated by post-market enforcement).

"The mandate of any additional information will inevitably be complicated by the pre-approval process and should be carefully evaluated through that lens.

"In particular, there will be acute complications if information is required to be presented on the label (rather than via scannable QR code or URL), if testing is required for nutrient information, and if the longstanding acceptable practice of providing ingredient ranges for formulas is disallowed or compromised through the adoption of an FDA-like system of labeling ingredients in order of predominance.

"Reasonable timelines for formula and label approvals are key to manage industry member production, marketing, and state registration requirements."

In light of these unique characteristics of distilled spirits products and the product approval process, the TTB needs to watch that some rules might actually stand in conflict with each other.

"For example, including “wheat” on a spirits label as an ingredient could suggest that a whiskey distilled from wheat contains wheat in the final product, when this is not the case as the wheat proteins are stripped from the product through the distillation process and all that remains is alcohol. This wheat declaration could unnecessarily alarm those with wheat allergies and inadvertently suggest that it had the nutritional value of wheat. Wheat whiskey is not the same as a slice of whole wheat bread, and we do not want to confuse consumers with any suggestion to the contrary."

At its base, the Council is concerned that an extra layer of regulation will overburden both business and the TTB and make it increasingly complicated and lengthy to get a product to market.

"It is imperative that we do not mindlessly adopt protocols that are simply not feasible in a pre-approval scheme."

Small businesses concerns

The Brewers Association, the trade body recognizing small and independent brewers and in particular the US' innovative craft beer scene, highlights that rules must avoid putting an unreasonable burden on small businesses. Nor does it want to see rules that stifle craft beer innovations or discourage competition. 

While it backs mandatory disclosure of some information (such as ABV; the ‘big nine’ allergens; nutrition information consistent with the ‘statement of average analysis’ already mandated for certain products’, and the ingredients contained in the finished product) it says this needs to be done with consideration of the effect on small businesses.

“Small brewers have injected needed competition into the beer market in the past three decades,” said General Counsel Marc E. Sorini of The Brewers Association, in the organization’s official response submitted to the TTB​ at the end of March. “Much of that competitive vigor has come from the ability to innovate with small batch products, either to meet consumers’ varied tastes or to test new techniques and ingredients on a small scale. Protecting this innovation pipeline represents a critical challenge when formulating new disclosure rules that inevitably will impose some costs on the industry.”

On practical terms, that could mean using analytical methods that are easily obtainable by small commercial breweries, and permitting a range of tolerances around any final rules.

While it agrees consumers want access on ABV and allergens (that often being a defining factor for why a drinker purchases a particular drink), it says nutritional and ingredient disclosures should be dealt with more flexibly.

So on this point, it wants to see off-label disclosures to be an option: as is already used widely in the EU alcohol industry. That’s particularly important for smaller, local, experimental breweries – who may find this kind of information varies according to the batch of raw materials used.

“Small and independent brewers and the alcohol beverage industry generally often innovate through experimental products, special releases, and seasonal offerings,” notes Sorini. “Moreover, vagaries caused by variations in agricultural inputs can throw off nutritional measures, and controlling for these is very difficult for small producers or in the case of small batch products. This issue becomes more acute when sourcing agricultural products from small local farms, leading to more variation compared to large national and international suppliers.

“A web-based disclosure solution accordingly would provide substantial flexibility by allowing adjustments for nutrient measures or variations in ingredients (as often happens in the case of seasonal products) to be addressed without the need to design, submit for approval, and produce new labels.”

Finally, it highlights that craft brewers will need a reasonable time period to adjust to new rules – at least three years after any new regulations are finalized - allowing them to use up existing labels and redesign packaging.

Mandatory and voluntary alcohol labeling in Europe

In Europe, the beer, wine and spirits industries have been pushing to provide nutritional information voluntarily​ - being a core pledge of industry associations for a number of years (As in the US, food regulation - FIC - does not apply to alcohol)

Both the spirits and beer industries have clear voluntary initiatives for consumer information labeling. Some 95% of beer volumes sold in cans and bottles include a list of ingredients, while 88% label energy values. The biggest spirits companies have signed up to a Memorandum of Understanding on consumer information: with a compliance rate of around 86%.

However, in December, new wine labeling requirements came into force which do require a list of ingredients and nutritional information to be covered by wine brands. And future revisions of FIC could see a move towards mandatory legislation.

US wine industry looks to EU model of electronic info

With some 1,000 members primarily in the US wine industry stronghold of California, Wine Institute has also being paying close attention to how legislation may evolve.

It points to the model that new EU wine legislation is using: which mandates certain information should be available to consumers, but allows this to be done via QR codes. That fits in with how wine is produced and what is practical for wineries.

"Wine Institute has worked for many years to understand how producers of all sizes can deliver nutritional information in a simple and cost effective manner," said Charles Jefferson, Vice President, Federal and International Public Policy.

"Wine is unique from recipe foods with a highly dynamic production process where decisions impacting nutritional and ingredient content are made right up to the time of blending and bottling, making labeling — which often happens months in advance — a complicated and potentially costly issue for thousands of wineries across the country.

"As we are seeing in the  EU, off-label disclosure via electronic means is the best way to minimize the burden on small producers while ensuring consumers have access to information.

"Wine Institute, as a constructive voice in TTB’s regulatory process, will continue to provide input on the effectiveness of digital and off-label approaches and the growing consumer demand for QR codes as a means to expanded information.”

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