A holiday beverage can bring a smile to your face, a flush to your cheeks, and a jolly disposition. Overindulge, and it might it leave you with a hangover of regrets—both to your head and your waistline. Unfortunately, it's virtually impossible to track the amount of alcohol, calories, or even basic ingredients (including possible allergens) in these drinks.
Despite their widespread use, beverages containing alcohol are the only category of food or drink that aren't required to list standardized serving and nutrition facts, making them more like nutritional supplements than juice or soda. The Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Trade and Tax Bureau (TTB), which regulates alcohol labeling, has been pressured for decades by consumer groups who want more information about the spirits we imbibe. But because of bureaucratic inertia, industry lobbying, and other factors, the labeling never materialized.
What you get is some very basic information about alcohol content. We know, for instance, that a 1.5 ounce serving of vodka, gin, or tequila hovers around 100 calories, 5 ounces of wine will usually contain 115, and 12 ounces of beer will likely give you at least 150. But individual spirits, beers, and wines range in calorie and alcohol content depending on the brand or variety, according to The Consumer Federation of America, which developed a comparison of the alcohol, calorie, and carbohydrate content of the 26 top-selling domestic and imported alcohol brands.
Beyond the alcohol in those bottles, there are also countless additives and preservatives, ranging from natural herbs to milk protein and egg whites to chitosan (made from the exoskeletons of crustaceans) to a clay made of volcanic ash called bentonite . "There are hundreds of multisyllabic things that go into processing alcohol, from fish bladders—called 'isinglass', used as a fining agent to clarify wine—to myriad other things that people might shudder about if they knew what was in there," says George Hacker, alcohol policy director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a food and nutrition consumer-advocacy group. Alcohol producers must show that what they have in the bottle either does not cause an allergic response that risks human health, or that there are no longer any allergic proteins derived from milk, eggs, or certain fish and nuts left in the bottle after processing.
Since the repeal of Prohibition, many legal battles have been waged over the information on alcohol labels. Currently there is a rule against promoting health claims on alcohol, which some spirit makers say has stymied their efforts to include information about added vitamins and suppliments. The government passed a regulation requiring ingredient labels on alcoholic beverages during the Carter administration, but the regulations were rescinded by President Reagan before they could go into effect, as part of his "regulatory relief" plan. The fight to include nutritional information on alcohol began to get noisy again in 2003 when a coalition of consumer groups began lobbying the Bush, and now the Obama administration, to finally put nutritional information on alcohol.
"Americans have a basic right to know what we're drinking in order to better moderate our intake, and to fight obesity and binge drinking," says Barbara Moore, director of the nonprofit group Shape Up America!. Certain industry groups, however, say specific labeling would put too much of a strain on companies. The Wine Institute argues that labels not be mandatory, or at least just show average values, to prevent winemakers from the burden and expense of "having to run to the lab each time there is a new vintage or variety," says spokesman Wendell Lee.
But given rising rates of obesity and diabetes, average values aren't enough for critics. "We think it would be very helpful for people with diabetes to find nutrition labels on alcoholic beverages, especially information about calories and the total carbs," says Stephanie Dunbar, director of nutrition and clinical Affairs for the American Diabetes Association, who notes that the consumption of alcohol carries special risks for diabetics. The American Medical Association has also been pressing the TTB to require an easy-to-read standardized Alcohol Facts label that would include information about caffeine, preservatives, and additives as well as calories and serving size. This is especially crucial, the AMA says, due to a rise in alcohol container sizes, especially in minority areas. "Someone thinks they've had one beer, but who knows how many they've had?" says Richard Yoast, the AMA's director of the department of prevention and healthy lifestyles. He adds that the lack of nutritional information has grown especially problematic with the advent of "alcopops," which look like beer but contain a higher alcohol volume thanks to added spirits and sugar.
There are signs the government may be responding. In 2007 the TTB issued a refined proposal for mandatory labeling, and TTB spokesperson Arthur Resnick tells NEWSWEEK the proposal, which would include calories, carbs, fat, and protein, "is currently under review by the Treasury Department." But Treasury is still reeling from the economic crisis and has its hands full, so there's no indication of when they'll rule one way or another. Consumer groups are also worried the proposal doesn't go far enough because it doesn't require the amount of alcohol per serving. The lack of such information, wrote consumer groups, including CSPI and Shape Up!, in an open letter to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, "leaves alcoholic beverages as an enormous blind spot in the American diet."
Until labeling changes are enacted, most of what's on a label doesn't go beyond the advice offered to Alice during her forays in Wonderland: "Drink Me."