As part of No 10’s new health kick, drinks producers are facing mandatory calorie labelling. How will it work?
Has Britain’s drinking habit turned us into one of the fattest nations in Europe? The government seems to think so. Its new national food strategy could see alcohol brands forced to bare their calorific content on their labels to help shoppers make healthier choices.
A consultation on whether to make calorie labelling mandatory for drinks over 1.2% abv is due imminently. Supporters don’t see why booze should be let off the hook when food and drink brands have to provide in-depth nutritional information. Critics see it as difficult and costly and argue it could be another rod for the government to beat the sector with.
So how much is the booze industry really to blame for the obesity epidemic? How much would mandatory calorie labelling cost the industry? And would it even work?
There’s no denying that drinking too much can leave you weighing too much, as well as causing myriad other health problems. Pure alcohol is only slightly less calorific than fat, packing seven calories per gram versus fat’s nine. It’s almost twice as calorific as sugar, which contains four calories per gram. The mix of sugar, carbohydrates and alcohol in most drinks means many are particularly calorific. A pint of cider, for example, contains almost as many calories as a McDonald’s cheeseburger.
“It has been estimated that, for those that drink alcohol, it accounts for nearly 10% of the calories they consume,” said the government’s Tackling Obesity policy paper, released in July. “Each year around 3.4 million adults consume an additional day’s worth of calories each week from alcohol… we also know that the public is largely unaware of the calorific content of alcohol.”
“Every week, around 3.4 million adults consume an extra day’s worth of calories in alcohol”
Much to the annoyance of trade bodies, the paper relied heavily on research dating back several years, including a 2014 paper that suggested a strong link between obesity and alcohol. “Since that study was published, the drinks industry provides more information than ever before – both online and on-label – including guidance on health information and calorie content,” said Wine & Spirit Trade Association CEO Miles Beale at the time.
That’s not to say booze is healthy, of course. The dangers of over-drinking are well-documented. But it is not as simple as drawing a fine line between alcohol and obesity, especially when consumption is moderate. “We don’t believe there is any link between responsible consumption of alcohol as part of a healthy lifestyle and obesity,” says Quintessential Brands group marketing director Rob Curteis.
This is crucial because more recent studies show Brits taking a more moderate and sensible approach to drinking over recent years. According to 2018 ONS figures, binge drinking levels fell 20% from 2007 to 2017, while the number of people who drank on five or more days per week dropped 41%.
All this comes with caveats. Firstly, 15.5% of adults still exceed the recommended daily alcohol intake at least once a week and nearly one in 10 regularly drink on more than five days a week. Secondly, these numbers probably don’t tell the whole story. “It is likely that the data reported here underestimate actual drinking levels but can be used to show people’s perceptions of drinking,” said the ONS. “Social surveys consistently produce estimates of alcohol consumption that are lower than the levels indicated by alcohol sales data.”
Nevertheless, the WSTA’s Beale is adamant. “The majority of people in the UK are drinking responsibly,” he insists. “An increase in demand for low and no alcohol products is seeing producers offering an increasing range to consumers who want to enjoy alcohol as part of a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle.”
Sales of low and non-alcoholic drinks did indeed grow 13.4% in 2019 and have continued on their upward trajectory since [Nielsen 52 w/e 26 January 2020], but there’s no getting away from the fact that the wider alcohol category is far bigger, and Britain has a weight problem. The latest NHS data shows that 67% of men and 60% of women in England are overweight or obese and hospital admissions related to obesity are rising.
“Obesity is a real problem affecting millions of people, so producers of consumables – be it food or drink – have a responsibility to be up front about what’s in our products so that consumers can make an informed choice,” admits Curteis. “That they’re considering making calorie content mandatory on labels for alcoholic drinks above 1.2% abv should not have come as a surprise to anyone in the alcohol industry”.
“Producers have a responsibilty to be up front about what’s in our products”
Indeed, many big names have already added calorie content to their packs, while plenty of others have committed to doing so. Budweiser Brewing Group, for instance, is adding calorie information to all its new SKUs. All of Accolade Wines’ core branded wines carry calorie information, as do roughly 80% of spirits giant Pernod Ricard’s volumes.“Calories on label is consistent with some other markets internationally such as Ireland and voluntary industry commitments at EU level,” says Pernod Ricard commercial director Ian Peart.
However, depending on the level of detail required of suppliers, mandatory calorie labelling could bring some inconvenient truths about our favourite drinks into focus. Because while the alcohol industry already faces tough regulations when it comes to packaging, marketing and promoting, it has not yet faced widespread scrutiny over ingredients, sugar and calories.
The research cited by the government certainly suggests this is the case: it found 80% of the public were unaware of the calorie content of common drinks. Which means some shoppers are in for a shock, says 58 Gin Distillery MD Carmen O’Neal. “Calorie labelling will really open consumers’ eyes. Many people still don’t realise how high the calorific content can be in alcoholic drinks.”
“It is of course the prerogative of the producer how they wish to make their product,” stresses Quintessential’s Curteis. “However, if the producer is not required to provide this nutritional information, the consumer isn’t being given the information they need to make an informed choice.”
In short, he says, mandatory labelling will thin the herd of brands who aren’t up to scratch on the health agenda. “The labelling will work well for those producers who have adapted to meet consumer demand for healthier options. Low and no sugar variants will thrive, while those with high added sugar will likely suffer.”
- Few people think about calorie content when they’re on a night out (or in, these days). So here’s a sobering thought: a pint of 5% abv lager packs almost as many calories as a McDonald’s cheeseburger.
- Calories consumed depends on three factors: alcohol content; sugar content; and how much you drink. Pure alcohol packs nearly double the calories of sugar (7/g versus 4/g).
- So, litre for litre, spirits are most calorific, despite being zero sugar. Of course, no one knocks gin back by the litre (that’s 2,440 calories). A single shot with a zero-calorie mixer contains just 61 calories, or a fifth of a cheeseburger.
- Swap slimline tonic for full-sugar and a single for a double and the calories amount to roughly the same as a pint. A few of them plus a proper cheeseburger on the way home and you’ve put away enough calories to make the latter-day Elvis proud.
Sound familiar? Just like in the wider world of fmcg, Curteis agrees sugar content will be subjected to the highest level of scrutiny in the booze world. “With excess sugar consumption known to lead to obesity and public messaging advising people to minimise their sugar intake, the fact that we don’t currently have to state how much sugar is in a bottle of alcohol over 1.2% is jarring.”
Quintessential is going as far as using its sugar (or lack thereof) as a marketing tool: 2019 saw it plough £800k into a push for its Greenall’s brand centring on its zero-sugar credentials. However, Alderman’s Drinks MD Liam Manton says the sugar question is more complicated. “You have some drinks that are full of synthetics, compared to more natural products which actually use fruit, so contain natural sugars – there’s got to be a smarter way we can approach this.”
Then there’s the cost to suppliers, which will depend largely on how drastically packs will need to be changed. “Including calories on labels could result in a small change to packaging design or it may require a complete overhaul,” says Alcohol Solutions director Graham Gibson. “The costs of the two would differ significantly. We may see some uniformity in terms of an information box on cans or bottles, where abv, units and calories are grouped together and almost separated from the creative aesthetics of packaging.”
“The alcohol industry can provide consumers with a far greater variety of information”
This, he says, would likely be “less disruptive and costly to packaging design” than alternatives like a traffic light system, which Manton says could hurt smaller producers. “The cost could be in the millions. To ask brands to adopt a new form of labelling without a phased approach or financial support… could be really detrimental to small suppliers.” Manton argues it would be better to add QR codes on packs, which would provide a detailed online nutritional breakdown. “That way you could be even more responsible and detail things like what the average gin & tonic has in it and provide facts rather than duping them with a ratio system.”
Not everyone is satisfied with this solution. “How realistic is it that when doing your shopping in store, you’re going to take the time to scan the bottle and visit the website to look at nutritional information?” argues Quintessential’s Curteis. “I’d argue not very.”
There’s also the argument that allowing the industry to self-regulate could facilitate obfuscation with techniques such as providing calories for unrealistic servings. “You could argue that food brands are doing that already within the framework they’ve been given,” argues Manton.
Ultimately, whether or not producers eventually have to bare all on pack, that such a move is even on the cards suggests drinkers are no longer content to sip blindly.
Innovations in alcohol 2020
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Daniel has written about food and drink for the majority of his career: prior to joining The Grocer in 2017, he covered food and drink news on pub industry title The Morning Advertiser, and wrote features for VICE magazine.
Follow Daniel on Twitter: @WoolfsonExists