Without a nutrition label, it can be tough to discern much about what's in your booze besides the alcohol percentage. Read on to see why alcohol is exempt from the labeling we see on other foods and beverages.

Jessica Ball, M.S., R.D.
September 09, 2019
Getty Images / Maren Caruso

Walk down the aisles at the grocery store and you'll notice pretty much everything has a nutrition label. The exception? Alcohol. We consume alcohol and it contributes calories to our bodies, but you wouldn't know that from reading the label on the bottle. Ever wonder why alcohol won't tell you the ingredients or calories inside the bottle? We have the scoop below.

Related: Health Benefits of Drinking Wine

The History

After Prohibition ended in 1933, regulation of alcohol was placed not under the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but with another federal agency, now called the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). The main reason for the separation of food products and alcohol was to generate tax revenue on the newly legalized beverages. The first Nutrition Facts label became required in 1994 for products governed by the FDA. But since alcohol doesn't fall under the FDA, it was able to skirt around these requirements.

In 2013, the TTB made labels optional if manufacturers wanted to include them, but not required. This led some alcohol brands to use nutrition as a means of marketing, without any consistent means of comparison between products (think beer commercials calling out high-fructose corn syrup or just how low they are in carbs).

There are, however, some things that must be labeled on alcohol:

  • Substances that may cause sensitivities, such as sulfites and synthetic dyes, must be listed.
  • Distilled spirits must include an alcohol percentage.
  • Wines with 7% alcohol or higher must include an alcohol percentage.

Why It Matters

There are pros and cons to the idea of putting nutritional information on alcoholic beverages, and both sides have avid supporters.

Pros to adding nutrition labels to alcohol:

Excess calorie consumption can come from many things, and one area of our diets that is sometimes overlooked is alcohol. The American Journal of Public Health found that the among American adults who drink alcohol, the average person consumes around 300 calories daily from booze (about 16% of your daily calories on a 2,000-calorie diet). Nutrition labeling may help people become more aware of serving sizes and how alcohol can add to daily calorie intake.

One major hangup for people is that ingredient labeling on alcoholic beverages is totally optional. Regardless of nutrition, it can provide peace of mind to know what you are consuming. For example, the bright red color of Campari, a popular Italian liqueur, used to be derived from insect powder (some brands still do use carmine as a coloring agent, some don't). That may be a dangerous ingredient for someone with a shellfish allergy, and something vegans would want to avoid, but neither group would be able to know what's in their drink by reading the label on the bottle. An ingredient list would demystify what goes in to the alcoholic products we consume.

Cons to adding nutrition labels to alcohol:

In order to create a Nutrition Facts label, each variation of each product must have a sample sent to an authorized lab for nutrition analysis. This is an expensive and time-consuming process and would be tricky to do with vintage wine and special craft beer.

Another major critique of including a nutrition label on alcohol is that it could make it seem more like a food than a drug. For example, it would be counterproductive to have someone comparing the calories and carbs in bread with that of a glass of wine. For this reason, many advocacy groups, such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest, have stated that labels on alcohol should include facts like alcohol percentage, serving size and calories, while excluding nutrients that make them seem comparable to food.

Calorie Counts for Alcoholic Beverages

It may seem obvious that, even though they don't have a label, alcoholic beverages contain calories. Alcohol contains 7 calories per gram (fat has 9 calories/gram and carbs and protein deliver 4 calories/gram). The surprising part is how quickly those calories can add up. Calories may vary depending on ingredients and production processes (and don't forget the calories in mixers!), but here are some common calorie counts for usual serving sizes of several alcoholic beverages:

  • Sparkling Wine (Champagne, prosecco): 5 fluid ounces, 125 calories
  • White Wine: 5 fluid ounces, 125 calories
  • Red Wine: 5 fluid ounces, 125 calories
  • Light Beer: 12 fluid ounces, 100 calories
  • Regular Beer: 12 fluid ounces, 150 calories
  • Craft & Higher-Alcohol Beer: 12 fluid ounces, 200+ calories
  • Distilled Liquors (rum, vodka, gin, whiskey): 1.5 fluid ounces, 150 calories
  • Liqueurs: 1.5 fluid ounces, 150+ calories

Bottom Line

With rising concerns about ingredients in alcoholic beverages, a nutrition label could illuminate what each product actually contains. However, requiring the label would raise production costs for small-scale manufacturers, winemakers and brewers. For now, the debate continues and alcohol stays without a nutrition label.

Related:

EatingWell's Guide to Alcohol and Your Health

How Alcohol Affects Your Body

Can Alcohol Be Part of a Healthy Diet?

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