Calorie labelling of booze needed to cut obesity

By Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

Calorie labelling should be made mandatory on alcohol: RSPH
Calorie labelling should be made mandatory on alcohol: RSPH

Related tags Alcoholic beverage

Calorie labelling on alcohol should be introduced urgently to help stem the soaring rise in levels of obesity, according to the chief executive of the Royal Society of Public Health (RSPH), which launched a campaign last year to see it enshrined in law.

Consumers were unaware of how many calories were in wine, beer and cocktails, which was causing them to drink more than they might otherwise, said the RSPH’s Shirley Cramer.

“Overconsumption of alcohol is one of the biggest risk factors in non-communicable diseases – cardiovascular, type 2 diabetes and liver disease – and it also adds to obesity,”​ Cramer told a seminar on food labelling policy organised by the Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum in London yesterday (July 9).

She claimed that 10% of calorie intake in the UK population came from alcohol, with one in four people drinking too much.

‘Hidden calories’

“Our campaign was about creating a debate and a dialogue, so that people become more aware of these things – we call them hidden calories.”

Cramer pointed out that a large 250 millilitre glass of white wine included 180 calories, equivalent to or a slice of pizza, which would require a two mile walk to burn off. And a Pinicolata cocktail had 450 calories, equivalent to a cheeseburger. “At the moment we have units​ [of alcohol labelled],” she said. “People are very confused by units.”

Currently, alcoholic beverages containing over 1.2% of alcohol by volume are exempt from having to display nutritional or energy information on labels, Cramer noted.

“So there is a massive imbalance here between food and alcohol and we think things have to be done about this. We need to have much more equal information for the public about what’s in their alcohol,”​ she said.

In the US from December 2015, restaurant chains with more than 20 outlets would be forced to label the calories contained in alcoholic drinks, she reported.

Cramer also described a survey carried out by the RSPH, which showed that 80% of consumers “didn’t know or underestimated massively”​ the number of calories in a large glass of wine and over 60% didn’t know or underestimated the number in a pint of lager.

“What we did find out is that two-thirds of the public support the introduction of calories being displayed on alcohol,”​ she said. “So we are calling for alcoholic beverages to display that ingredients and nutritional information – including the calories.”

Brewers support labelling

Steve Livens, policy manager for product assurance and supply chain with the British Beer and Pub Association, said the brewing industry supported the introduction of nutritional information. But he suggested that, because of space restrictions on bottles, etc, this should comprise a mixture of on-package and on-line labelling.

“We have voluntary declarations for nutrition information on our alcoholic beverages,”​ said Livens. “Many brewers have already provided this information in one form or another. It may not be the easiest thing to access in the world, either on-pack labelling or more primarily through company and brand web sites, but there is already a degree of this information already about.”

However, Livens suggested things were likely to change come December 2016 when nutritional information labelling on food and drink becomes mandatory under the Food Information for Consumers (FIC) regulation.

“The FIC allows us, as it does anybody who is voluntarily providing nutritional information, to declare energy as a sole declaration of nutritional content, which does make it a little easier for us to get into some of these things,”​ said Livens. But there was still uncertainty about what mandatory changes might be introduced by the European Commission (EC), he added.

EC alcohol labelling report

At the same event Stephen Pugh, head of food labelling at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said a report on alcohol labelling was still awaited from EC. The report was originally expected to be published in December 2014, but this date has slipped and, according to Livens, nothing was likely to appear before early 2016.

“Primarily, we would like any legislative recommendations to be aligned; we want this to be a come one come all situation.”​ he added. “It must apply across the whole alcoholic beverage sector and not have differences dependent on different beverage types.”

Livens predicted that by 2017, around 80% of beer sold in the UK would have ingredient information on pack, while other nutritional information would be available on-line.

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