Opinion

Alcoholic drinks need nutrition labels

Drinkers should be aware of the empty calories in some alcoholic drinks.

This summer, I turned 21, made too many poor drink choices, and gained about 10 pounds.

I didn’t really know what I was putting in my body. A pint of Fat Tire, my favorite beer, is about 230 calories, or about an hour of walking for someone my weight to burn off. So it’s not a body-benefiting choice to chug two, though it definitely feels good in the moment.

I’ve been thinking lately about all the stuff I’ve consumed. The beer, the mixed drinks. I’m just now reckoning with the nutritional hellscape that it’s left me in. Especially the mixed drinks.

“That liquor could maybe be 80 calories, but it could also have soda or juice or grenadine mixed in with it, that could double or even triple those calories,” said Lori Lorditch, the university nutritionist. “It’s something that could really add up quickly without you realizing.”

Some drinks, like hard ciders with less than 7 percent alcohol content, are effectively a “food,” and therefore labeled by the Food and Drug Administration. But such labels are not always on beer, wine and liquor because they are regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which does not require labels.

This is a sad lack of transparency in one of the largest industries. Drinkers ought to know what they’re consuming so they can make nutritional choices that benefit them.

I would like to realize the calories that are adding up, especially now given what I’ve learned from Lorditch.

Alcohol burns as “empty calories,” meaning it has no nutrients, she said. It also interferes with fat burning and weight loss. When the liver breaks down alcohol, that alcohol is burned for energy, and those calories are used before the liver starts burning calories from fats.

 

 

A blog post from the Harvard Medical School details proposed federal guidelines on empty calories, stating that they should be limited to no more than 20 percent of a daily diet. But budgeting calories to meet this recommendation is nearly impossible without strictly mandated “nutrition facts” labels on alcoholic drinks.

For all the opacity about the nutritional content of alcoholic drinks, there are some significant efforts toward transparency that have emerged recently. One was announced in July by the Beer Institute, a trade association representing some of the largest brewers selling in the U.S. — including Heineken and Anheuser-Busch, which produces Budweiser.

The Beer Institute announced that its member breweries would add labels to their packaging that include calories, carbohydrates, protein and fat. The group touts that its members sell a combined 80 percent of beer consumed in the United States.

But not all of this beer will be sold in bottles and cans that have these labels. Much of it will be sold on draft, where it will be up to the bar or restaurant to note the nutritional content on the menus.

“They’ve started doing that with food, but I don’t know if it will go as far as alcohol,” Lorditch said.

Wine and spirits trade associations haven’t made much of a fuss about getting this information out there, and the beer-transparency commitment may not be fully rolled out until 2020. In the meantime, I’ll find it helpful to have a general idea of the nutritional value of the alcohol I’ll be drinking, and I’ll try to stick to the philosophy Lorditch expressed to me: it’s OK to have what you like, but have it in moderation.

“If you want to change something [about your diet] but you don’t want to give up a [higher-calorie] craft beer completely, you could enjoy one or two of those and then switch to something lighter,” she said.

Got it. I’ll stick to just one Fat Tire next time.

Joe Brandt can be reached at jbrandt@temple.edu or on Twitter @JBrandt_TU.

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