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Nutritional Info for Spirited Beverages: What the Drink Industry, the U.S. Federal Government, and Special Interest Groups Won’t Tell You

Posted by Bob Skilnik on June 23, 2008



Humor me for a moment. Take a walk over to your household pantry and grab a few packaged food items. I’ve randomly pulled out of my clutter of vittles a bottle of imported olive oil, a container of powdered premium baking cocoa from a well-known West Coast chocolate manufacturer, a small jug of natural peanut butter (“super-duper CHUNKY” boast the label), a packet of hot salsa seasoning mix, and a box of bite-sized shredded wheat cereal. Line up whatever you’ve gathered and place them on your kitchen table, with the backside of the containers facing you.

Now step over to where you store your household booze and bring out a bottle or two of distilled spirits. You can usually find vodka or gin in my mini-bar, but whatever you have handy will work just fine. If you have a wine rack, pull down a bottle. Finally, dig around the fridge and grab a bottle of regular-brewed beer. If you have a “light” beer or a Miller Lite (by the way, the ONLY beer brand that can legally use the word “Lite”), leave them in the fridge. “Light” beers and Miller Lite are exceptions to the arcane labeling requirements of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (commonly referred to as the TTB), a division of the United States Department of the Treasury.

By now, I’m sure you understand where I’m going with this little exercise. Not only can I find the calories, fat content, cholesterol, sodium, potassium, protein, vitamins and minerals and even the ingredients of every packaged good I grabbed from my pantry, but my box of breakfast cereal even throws in the dietary carbohydrate exchange of a serving size, currently based on the Exchange Lists for Meal Planning, ©2003 by The American Diabetes Association, Inc., and The American Dietetic Association.

What about my bottles of vodka and gin, wine and beer? Aside from the commonality of this foreboding admonishment on the labels or containers themselves, GOVERNMENT WARNING: (1) ACCORDING TO THE SURGEON GENERAL, WOMEN SHOULD NOT DRINK ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES DURING PREGNANCY BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF BIRTH DEFECTS. (2) CONSUMPTION OF ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES IMPAIRS YOUR ABILITY TO DRIVE A CAR OR OPERATE MACHINERY, AND MAY CAUSE HEALTH PROBLEMS, the majority of you have no idea what’s in any of these products, nor can you find any indication of even the most meager nutritional information on their labels, packing or advertising material…and you’re not alone. Millions of imbibers who might appreciate knowing, at a minimum, the amount of calories, carbohydrates and alcohol content in the favorite drinks are left in the dark every time they reach for a little gusto. Between the glacier-like movement of the TTB to make a final decision on labeling requirements for adult beverages, the resistance of elements of the drink industry to go through the anticipated expense of testing their products for nutritional values and the redesign of their container labels to reflect this info, plus the uncompromising demands of special interest groups for even more (in some case, less) information to be required, the entire decision-making process by the feds has been bogged down to the mess it’s in today.

The move towards the full disclosure of nutritional values of alcohol-based beverages on labels and advertising materials is currently being discussed at the federal level of government and in the alcoholic drink industry. As noted above, labeling regulations for spirited drinks falls under the auspices of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. The TTB, however, does not require brewers, vintners or distillers to list any nutritional values on their products, unless the drink maker makes a nutritional claim about their product. This exception helps to explain why you can find nutritional info on the labels of low-calorie/carbohydrate light beers but not on regular-brewed beers. The very fact that a light beer claims to be lower in calories and carbohydrates than its big brother (Bud Light vs. Budweiser, for instance), makes the nutritional labeling of these products mandatory.

This very odd situation, knowing what’s in your kid’s sugar-frosted cereal or that bar of gooey chocolate nuggets in your pocket, and not what’s in the majority of your favorite adult beverage has an interesting history that goes back to the early days of Repeal in the mid-1930s. For close to eighty years, consumers and consumer groups have requested, and received, more nutritional and ingredient information to be listed on the containers of the foods they eat, relying on the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to enforce food labeling regulations. But take a look at those bottles you placed on your kitchen table and you see that, even though alcohol consumption is a way of life for a majority of Americans, they’re not offered the same sort of nutritional info that can be found on food containers.

Nonetheless, some spirit makers have tried taking matters into their own hands, responding to a growing movement by their customers to satisfy their request for nutritional information on their products. The United Kingdom-based Diageo, PLC, one of the world’s leading premium drink companies, commissioned Ipsos Public Affairs in 2003 to survey low-carbohydrate dieters and test their perceptions of the carbohydrate counts of “popular alcohol options” when the low-carbohydrate movement was at its peak. The survey, which simply measured the public’s knowledge about the carbohydrate counts of popular beverage alcohol options, found that 63% of people surveyed incorrectly believe that wine and beer are lower in carbohydrates than spirits like vodka, tequila, gin and scotch whiskey. Of course, this was during the low-carb craze, but the survey implied that consumers needed more information about the alcoholic products they consume.

Unfortunately, Diageo’s bold move to voluntarily provide nutritional information of their products for an eager audience has been thwarted by indecision on the part of the TTB, which is still wrestling with the requests of a myriad of consumer groups for not only nutritional information on alcoholic beverage labels but also product ingredients, and possible allergens. Opposing any labeling changes is a significant group of mostly smaller-sized vintners and brewers, and wine, beer and spirit importers, many who claim that the laboratory testing of their products, along with a scrapping and design revamping of their product labels would be cost prohibitive.

Until there can be a consensus between the manufacturers of alcoholic beverages, government regulators and consumer groups to agree on a standardization of the nutritional information labeling of beers, wines and spirits, a pipe dream of a time frame that industry analysts estimate may be at least five years, Nutritional Info for Spirited Beverages: What the Drink Industry, the U.S. Federal Government, and Special Interest Groups Won’t Tell You, will fill this informational void. With a drink industry that momentarily enjoys the regulatory trappings of the status quo after suffering through well over a century of government taxation, overt regulation and interference—including downright prohibition, they’re now preparing to fend off the demands and splintered interests of consumer groups which want labels with more information on them than the surface area of even a gallon bottle could offer. Momentarily separated by a federal governmental agency (the TTB) that came into being as part of The Homeland Security Act…the idea that we’ll be able to pick up a bottle of imported single malt Scotch within the estimated five years, look at the container’s label and know the calories, carbohydrates, alcohol by volume or proof, fat and sodium content, cholesterol and possible allergens and proper serving size of that poor Scotch will never happen; it can’t happen, not when there’s no “spirit” of compromise in the equation.

As we investigate typical components of today’s distilled products, for instance, you’ll see that most of the elements listed above will never be found in distilled products in the first place. In Nutritional Values for Spirited Beverages: What the Drink Industry, the U.S. Federal Government, and Special Interest Groups Won’t Tell You, you’ll be able to separate the meaningful from the meaningless. If you’re old enough to remember the manufacturers of clear-colored 7-Up with its mix of sweetening agent, carbonated water and a refreshing hint of citrus, making the claim that it contained no fat, “Never had it. Never will,” you see that some of the demands by consumer interest groups for full disclosure of what’s in you favorite beer, wine or spirited drink can be just as silly. The TTB knows this and is probably trying to come to terms with the fact that no matter what, you can’t please all of the people, all of the time. It’s this process, of trying to keep everyone happy, but also preparing for the inevitable, that’s bogging down the movement of giving the consumer a better sense of what’s really in their favorite adult beverages.  

So where does that leave the consumer? Using the information in Nutritional Info for Spirited Beverages: What the Drink Industry, the U.S. Federal Government, and Special Interest Groups Won’t Tell You, dieters or imbibers who simply wants to know the calorie, carbohydrate and alcohol by volume (abv) counts of over 1,200 beers, 400 wines and more than 100 distilled products, can use this book as a valuable guide. For the more adventurous, readers will also be able to use this information for the making of a plethora of mixed drinks, knowing the nutritional value of what they are consuming, along with modified recipes that can lower their caloric, carbohydrate or alcohol intake while imbibing, if so desired. A representative array totaling well over two hundred lower-calorie/carbohydrate/fat drink recipes is included in this book, following the listings of the nutritional values for the respective categories of beer, wine, liqueurs and liquors. These drink recipes will demonstrate how simple it can be to tweak traditional drink recipes into lower-calorie/ carbohydrate/fat alternatives, leaving open the additional option of simply having a reference for the standard values of today’s most popular mixed drinks. Think of the traditional drink option as being offered to you as a “straight up” version while thinking of the slimmed down variations as drinks “with a twist.” Either side of the drink card will prove delicious! Just because the drink manufacturers, federal regulators and consumer groups can’t arrive at a solution that will benefit the millions of imbibers in the U.S., doesn’t mean that we can’t make an end run around this quagmire.

Nutritional Info for Spirited Beverages: What the Drink Industry, the U.S. Government and Special Interest Groups Won’t Tell You
will also address the latest information on the possible health benefits of the moderate consumption of adult beverages, the growing movement of organic alcoholic beverages, especially in the beer and wine sectors, and the success of experimentation by brewers in developing satisfying alcoholic products for sufferers of celiac disease. 

A huge stumbling block to the health benefit labeling of beer, wine and spirits has been the notion of connecting alcoholic beverages with health. It’s taboo, and has been since the 1930s. You can pick up a bottle today and read all about their pejorative elements of alcoholic products, courtesy of the mandated government warning on all booze containers, but the drink industry has steadfastly avoided making any sort of claim on the possible health benefits of moderate drinking. Sure, you’ll read about studies that indicate a possible benefit of alcohol consumption, but you should also note that there’s never the name of a drink manufacturer or trade association openly connected with these positive studies.

It’s also important to note the importance of diabetics knowing the carbohydrate value of alcoholic beverages. While diabetics should consult with their physicians about the moderate consumption of any alcoholic products, knowledge of the carbohydrate count of wine and its enjoyment has been promoted by visionaries such as Rabbi Hirsch Meisels, organizer of Friends With Diabetes International, (, ). Not knowing the carbohydrate content of what they eat or drink can have diabetics fumbling to adjust their insulin dosages to compensate for blood sugar levels that are too high or low because they didn’t know the carbohydrate level of what they were consuming.

Keep this in mind—this is not a diet book per se. Nutritional Info for Spirited Beverages: What the Drink Industry Won’t Tell You is a reference book that anyone can use as a source of nutritional information while sitting back with a favorite beer, wine or mixed drink. The inclusion of mixed-drink recipes that have been tweaked for lower calorie/carbohydrate/fat alternatives will ensure a larger readership, but the reader could just as well enjoy a traditionally-made drink, content with the knowledge of simply knowing its nutritional value. The key to the book—the hook—is the disclosure of the nutritional values of more than 1,200 worldwide beers, 400 wines, and 100 liqueurs and liquors. While there are scores of nutritional references books on the market today that run the course from the calories and carbohydrates of fast foods such as The NutriBase Guide to Fast-Food Nutrition by NutiBase to Fast-Food Nutrition through the more traditional approach of The Complete Book of Food Counts by Corinne T. Netzer, there is no publication on bookshelves today that adequately addresses the nutritional values of alcoholic beverages. This book does.



Whether you’re following Atkins, South Beach, Weight Watchers, a low-fat or calorie regime or your own interpretation of a glycemic diet, or simply trying to follow a dietary lifestyle that gives you accurate information on what you eat and drink, there’s something in Nutritional Info for Spirited Beverages: What the Drink Industry, the U.S. Government and Special Interest Groups Won’t Tell You for anyone who enjoys kicking off their shoes, having a satisfying drink and having the nutritional information that fits their lifestyle.


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