What are you drinking?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

EU regulation does not require alcohol beverages to declare their calorific content. [Shutterstock]

A can of soup, a carton of juice, a bottle of wine. When shopping for any of the above, it stands to reason that you could turn to the calories or inspect the ingredients. As you’d imagine, food and drink producers are obliged to label their produces’ ingredients and calorie content. Wine, however, is exempt.

Mariann Skar is Secretary General for the European Alcohol Policy Alliance (Eurocare)

In fact, the Commission’s Regulation 1169/2011 exempted all drinks stronger than 1.2% alcoholic strength by volume (ABV) from needing ingredient or nutritional labelling (i.e calories).

This regulation  was the subject of frenzied lobbying by the alcohol industry who argued that labelling would be economically ruinous for small and medium-sized producers, that consumers didn’t really want to know the ingredients, and that they wouldn’t understand them even if they did.

At Eurocare, we continue to politely disagree. Listing ingredients alerts the consumer to the presence of any potentially unwanted substances or allergens, and nutritional information such as energy content allows consumers to monitor their diets and maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Suppose for a moment that you’re buying a can of Coke. You’ll easily find the ingredients and nutritional information on the back of the can. Now suppose you’re buying a pre-mixed rum and coke, the list of additives is suddenly nowhere to be found. This is patently bizarre.

Europe drinks more alcohol than any other region in the world, but its citizens are completely in the dark about what’s in the bottle. A survey of over 2,000 adults found that 80% of those questioned did not know the calorie content of common drinks, with a majority unaware that alcohol contributed to their calorie intake at all.

There are several issues at stake here. Nearly 1 in 6 adults in the EU is considered obese, and the average drinker gets 10% of their daily calorie intake from alcohol. Alcohol is very calorie-intense, with 7 calories in every gram (beaten only by pure fat at 9 calories/gram). In the midst of growing concerns about public health, there is absolutely no good reason why consumers shouldn’t be presented with this information on the label.

Some industry figures have suggested that the information be made available online, or accessible via QR code. However, since vanishingly few consumers ever check online, it is tempting to see the industry as attempting to kick the issue under the carpet.

The burden of finding nutritional values and ingredient listings should not be placed on the consumer. Labels remain the best option to inform consumers at the point of sale about nutritional value and ingredients.

When asked, consumers repeatedly express their desire for better information. Using the industry’s own figures, the Brewers of Europe found that 86% of consumers want both nutritional values and ingredients to be provided – a sharp increase since 2014. To their credit, breweries have taken pro-active steps with the vast majority of beer brewed in the EU now listing ingredients.

In March, following a Commission report on alcohol labelling, Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Vytenius Andriukaitis was right to highlight the lack of “any objective grounds justifying the absence of the list of ingredients and nutrition information on alcoholic beverages.”

Disappointingly, the Commission report concluded with a meek recommendation that industry  should submit a self-regulatory proposal within a year. That clock runs out in March 2018 and should the Commission deem the proposal unsatisfactory, it plans to launch an impact assessment.

Consumers have the right to know what they’re putting in their bodies. A key pillar of the EU’s internal market is the protection of its consumers. Indeed, Article 169 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union enshrines the EU’s commitment to “protecting the health, safety and economic interests of consumers”, while also “promoting their right to information… in order to safeguard their interests”. This isn’t a pro-alcohol issue or an anti-alcohol issue, it’s just common sense.

In order to help small and medium-sized producers in particular, the EU has several tools which could ease the transition. Currently, the Common Agricultural Policy spends €250 million a year on wine promotion. Is it too much to ask that some money be spent producing labels that provide consumers with proper information? Given the longer-term health costs of increasing obesity, the question should be: can we afford not to?

For consumers to make a truly informed choice all alcoholic beverages should list their ingredients and have nutritional information per 100ml, as is the case for other beverages in Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011. If juice can do it, so can beer. If milk can do it, so can wine.

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