What’s in alcoholic drinks should be no secret

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


This article is part of our special report Alcohol in the EU’s policies.

SPECIAL REPORT / To know what our food and drinks are made of is a basic consumer right. However, alcoholic beverages – often loaded with calories and sugar – scarcely display the full list of ingredients and nutritional information, escaping the rules applied to everything else we eat and drink, writes Ilaria Passarani.

Ilaria Passarani is the Head of the Food and Health Department at The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), a 40-member strong organisation defending the interests of consumers at European level.

Mystery calories

Have you ever tried to find how many calories you ingest by sipping a glass of wine or beer? Ever wondered what those beverages are made of? While such information is easy to spot on a bottle of orange juice or milk, one cannot say the same when it comes to alcoholic beverages. Currently, nutrition and ingredient information is only labelled on alcoholic drinks at the manufacturers’ discretion. Just check bottles in a supermarket and you will realise it applies in very few cases.

Most of us know alcohol must be consumed in moderation. However, the scale of alcohol’s impact on our weight and health is far less obvious. How many people know that an average half litre of 5% alcohol beer contains as many calories as a chocolate bar (i.e. about 220 calories)? Or that a large glass of wine is more caloric than a cookie?

Needless to say, we need calories to fuel our bodies so they can support our daily activities. However, those present in alcohol are ‘empty’ calories[i], hence not vital. On top of being highly caloric, some alcoholic drinks are also laden with sugar. As such, alcohol’s part in our overall diet is often overlooked, despite the number of overweight or obese Europeans being on the rise.

Secret ingredients

As regards composition, consumers cannot know if food additives – such as colourings, preservatives or flavours – are mixed into the final product. No rule requires mention of whether apple flavour has been added to cider, for instance. Also, any added additives simply must be labelled on soft drinks, but the rule is inapplicable to alcohol-based versions.

What’s in the EU law?

The Food Information Regulation[ii] which recently entered into force in Europe requires all food and beverages to list ingredients and display energy value, fat, saturates, carbohydrate, sugars, protein and salt.

However, alcoholic beverages have slipped through the Regulation’s net and are exempted from such requirements. Since December 2014, the European Commission has been postponing the publication of a report assessing whether the reasons justifying such exemptions are sufficient.

Ending the exemption

We are not telling consumers to go ‘tee-total’. Our goal is to make sure they have the tools to make considered decisions. Nutritional labelling must be one such tool. Just like consumers have the right to know what they eat, they have the right to know what they drink.

Making ingredients compulsory on alcoholic drink labels would ensure consumers are not misled as to the true nature of a product, can assess quality properly and determine which product they want to buy. With controls being based on the ingredient list, it would also help combat fraud. Adding sugar and sweeteners to wine as flavour enhancers is just one example of alcohol manipulation.

Nutrition labelling on alcohol should be the default rule, not just an option. Voluntary labels undoubtedly create great disparities from one brand or country to another. No matter where they live or what their favourite drink is, all European consumers should be able to know what amount of sugar and calories they intake with alcohol.

If the European Commission is as serious as it claims about informing consumers and tackling obesity, at the minimum it should fulfill its obligations foreseen in the Food information Regulation by publishing the awaited report on alcohol labelling with no further delay.

[i] Empty Calories are the calories from solid fats and added sugars in foods and beverages. They add to total calories, but provide no vitamins or minerals. Source: USDA

[ii] Article 16 of the Food information Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011, entered into force last December 2014.

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