Beyond the Wine Aisle

How Many Calories - Regulated?

Addressing a drinker's dilemma: How many calories are in this?
Source: Washington Post - By Lyndsey Layton

New Year's revelers who plan to belly up to the bar but also resolve to drop 10 pounds in 2011 face a hurdle: calories, carbohydrates and other nutritional facts are nowhere to be found on a bottle of booze.

In fact, a debate has raged for seven years between federal regulators, consumer groups and the alcohol industry over just how much drinkers should know about the contents of alcoholic beverages: They are among the few consumable products that do not carry a nutrition label.

A light beer may have as few as 95 calories, while a Long Island iced tea, composed of equal parts vodka, tequila, triple sec, rum and gin, contains hundreds. A diabetic monitoring carbohydrates has no way to know the effects of a couple of stiff drinks. And those who want to avoid artificial additives can't tell by looking at a label if their suds are naturally golden, or chemically enhanced.

In 2003, two consumer groups petitioned the federal government to make alcohol producers go beyond the disclosures that have been required for stronger spirits since Prohibition. Back then, lawmakers required liquor manufacturers to cite the "proof" of their alcohol to protect consumers from being duped into buying watered-down booze.

The latest effort goes far beyond that requirement. It would make bottlers of beer, wine and spirits apply an "Alcohol Facts" label to their products, similar to the "Nutrition Facts" label found on most foods.

All parties agreed in principle that drinkers deserve basic information to make informed choices about beverages.

But the harmony gave way to a brawl between beer makers and the distilled spirits industry over how to define the average "serving size" of a drink - a standard way of measuring caloric content.

The hard liquor folks thought it was fine to use a standard produced by the Department of Health and Human Services, which every five years issues dietary guidelines to help Americans follow a healthy lifestyle. It says a serving is 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine and 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.

But the beer industry balked.

In 95 pages of comments submitted to the government, the Beer Institute, an industry trade group, argued that the HHS serving sizes are "fictitious" and do not reflect how drinkers actually consume alcohol.

A generous bartender, they argued, is unlikely to measure exactly 1.5 ounces when pouring a drink. And many mixed drinks contain more than one type of alcohol, making the HHS standard irrelevant, they said.

Beer makers argued that a more consistent labeling system would disclose the percentage of alcohol in an entire bottle and use a yet-to-be-developed serving size that takes into account "actual pouring and consumption habits, drink recipes and existing packaging information."

But that would leave it to a drinker to do the math and break down the caloric content of three New Year's Eve drinks, followed by a traditional champagne toast.

Guy L. Smith, executive vice president of Diageo North America, the world's largest maker of distilled spirits, said the beer industry's argument that serving sizes would confuse consumers is "nonsense."

"We think that's stupid," Smith said. "You can pick up a bottle of Diet Coke and see the serving size and other things that are in it. Why in the world would you not do that for alcoholic beverages?"

The battle has been playing out at the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, an obscure Treasury Department office.

"We don't understand why the government has taken so many years, has been so lackadaisical in getting this going," said Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League. "This is inexplicable foot-dragging by this agency on a basic piece of consumer information."

George Hacker, a senior policy adviser at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, offers a more forgiving view.

"It took quite a long time for this administration to fill seats at the Treasury Department, so for at least the first year after Obama took office, there wasn't a lot of movement," Hacker said. "And then there was the need to save the banking system."

Hacker thinks the debate over serving size is "really a stalking horse" for other contentious issues between beer and liquor producers.

The liquor industry would like to soften regulatory policies toward distilled spirits, he said.

Currently, the tax rate for hard liquor is about four times greater than that for beer and wine. In many states, distilled spirits must be sold in specialty shops and cannot be carried by supermarkets and convenience stores. Liquor companies also face greater restrictions in television advertising, thanks to network policies that favor beer and wine ads.

"They want to drum home the point that alcohol is alcohol is alcohol, because they want to be treated the same for tax purposes, for advertising, as well as [for] the distribution of their products," Hacker said.

Beer makers and liquor companies do agree on one thing, however. They all believe that the "Alcohol Facts" label should spell out the amount of carbohydrates, protein and fat in their products.

In a lot of cases, those lines would list just a few grams or even zero.

That might make it easier for a weight-watching consumer to justify that last holiday cocktail rather than gobbling another slice of Grandma's fruit cake.

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