Nutritional Labels for Wine & Spirits: Who Cares?

25 Jan

Last week I read the article Cheers? Booze bottles may get nutritional labels. Immediately, my nutrition-conscience brain started pondering this interesting proposition. Would it make a difference if you knew your glass of wine had 120 calories or your shot of vodka had 100 calories? For some, maybe, while others simply don’t care or have acquired the knowledge elsewhere. Don’t get me started on the personal responsibility side of human consumption choices; if you’re old enough to consume alcohol, you’re hopefully mature enough to make the appropriate decisions for your health. Obviously, as the creator of SippinSmart, I am an advocate for responsible drinking, of which the primary premise is moderation. Some may argue more nutritional oversight is needed for those who can’t or choose not to use wine and spirits in moderation. If someone truly has a problem with alcohol consumption—then yes, they have a problem, period. No “nutrition facts” label will fix the potentially pathological choices they may make (like going through the fast food drive-through daily; being slapped in the head with nutrition facts hasn’t changed much there). But this is about the average alcohol consumer.

It’s clear that wine and spirits have calories from alcohol and sugar. Given that most of the beverages in question have no other macronutrients to consider like protein or fat, it seems the only reason to place the facts label on a bottle is simply to give calories per serving. Let’s go back to this responsible moderate drinker. I’ll use myself as an example. For me, having a glass of wine or a cocktail is an experience. Sometimes it’s educational; sometimes it’s a pure treat or most often an extension of a planned and balanced meal. It’s hard for me to say whether calories in a glass of wine, a beer or cocktail make a difference to me since I’ve known that information for so long. Does that make me responsible? Well, maybe. I’m a registered dietitian which makes this discussion, I think, even more interesting. I could be on the legalistic calorie-counting side of things or I could lean towards the healthy balanced side (yes friends, booze has potential health benefits). Caloric knowledge is important, but it’s not whole story.

Michael Dragutsky is a physician, winery owner and fellow Memphian. I asked the Cornerstone Cellars’ owner his thoughts on the topic from an industry and medical perspective. Dr. Dragutsky states that “the nutritional content of wine and spirits is probably fairly constant across most brands. Unlike the sometimes big differences in nutritional contents of similar foods, the caloric content of alcohol shouldn’t vary among different producers and varietals.” He also suggested that “perhaps a nutritional chart should be posted where alcohol is sold to inform consumers of the nutritional value (and perhaps health benefits and risks) instead of making every winery or distiller put essentially the same label on all alcohol products.” This seems like a smart and potentially more cost-effective way of providing information to consumers.

“Wine and spirits are more of a luxury item than a foodstuff” says Dr. Dragutsky. “Going to the French bakery one does not ask how many carbs in the croissant.  I think the same idea holds for wine. People who are really interested in the caloric content can easily find out this info.”  Dr. Dragutsky and I share a similar opinion about labeling wine, beer & spirits. He summarized his opinion like this, “I’m not saying the nutritional value isn’t important, just that I’m not sure wine and spirits are in the same category as foodstuffs which can vary tremendously in their nutritional content and additives, and you often really don’t know what’s in a packaged food without reading the label.” 

Don’t confuse counting calories with using nutritional information to gain a general knowledge of a product or ingredients useful for responsible decision making. They are not one in the same. It’s important for someone to know if a product may contain a potential allergen or a poorly tolerated ingredient. This could be a helpful addition to the bottles in question. It seems, however, that adding the nutrition facts label to a wine or spirits bottle appears to be basically about calorie content. If the industry wants to “keep up,” then go for it. I’m just not sure it really matters.


2 Responses to “Nutritional Labels for Wine & Spirits: Who Cares?”

  1. Shelley Rael, MS RD LD January 25, 2011 at 4:54 pm #

    On one hand, I agree that most wine and spirits will not vary widely. And, that many people who WANT to know the calorie content already know.

    However, in my experience people consume more than just wine and spirits. Malt beverages are common (hard lemonade, bottle “mojitos,” etc.)as well as people not knowing that liqueurs can be much higher in calories than spirits.

    I frequently call to inquire about the calorie content on these and they are much higher in calories than the “standard” drink.

    Will people change their behaviors? We will see.

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