Alcohol: How it all adds up – National Consumers League

Wine. Beer. Wine cooler. Cocktail. Mixed drink. Different kinds of drinks, different amounts of alcohol, right? Wrong!

It’s a mistake many people make. In truth, standard serving sizes of all alcohol beverages — beer, wine, and liquor — are equal in alcohol strength and effect on the body.

Says who?
The current Dietary Guidelines for Americans, published by the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture, define a drink of alcohol as “12 oz. of regular beer, 5 oz. of wine, and 1.5 oz. of 80-proof distilled spirits.”

In a survey commissioned by the National Consumers League, respondents said they want more information about alcoholic beverages. Ninety-three percent said they want information on alcohol content, and 87 percent want information on the amount of alcohol per serving.

So, here it is. This fact sheet will help you understand how much alcohol you’re getting, no matter what drink you choose. Knowing the alcohol equivalency of standard serving sizes of different types of drinks is essential to consumers who want to drink responsibly. And experts agree. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “Alcohol is alcohol. Beer has the same effect as straight scotch. One 12-oz. beer has as much alcohol as a 1.5-oz. shot of whiskey or a 5-oz. glass of wine.”

How could that be?
One ounce of beer contains less alcohol than one ounce of spirits, but the standard serving of beer is a 12-oz. can or bottle. Here’s how it adds up:

  • Beer contains between 4 and 7 percent alcohol by volume, with the average being 5 percent alcohol by volume. 12 oz. x 5 percent alcohol by volume = 0.6 oz. of alcohol/serving.
  • The same is true of wine. The standard serving of wine is 5 oz., which generally contains between 11 and 13 percent alcohol by volume. 5 oz. x 12 percent alcohol by volume = 0.6 oz. of alcohol/serving.
  • Liquor (distilled spirits) is most often consumed in mixed drinks with 1.5-oz. spirits. Sometimes spirits (vodka, gin, scotch, bourbon, etc.) are mixed with water, club soda, or juice or served “straight” or “on the rocks.” No matter how spirits are consumed, a standard serving (1.5 oz.) of 80 proof (40 percent alcohol by volume) of distilled spirits has the same amount of alcohol as standard servings of beer and wine. So 1.5 oz. x 40 percent alcohol by volume = 0.6 oz. of alcohol/serving.

This means that a typical or standard serving of beer, wine, or spirits each contain 0.6 fluid ounces of alcohol.

Alcohol and medications don’t mix
Drinking beer, wine, or liquor while taking painkillers, allergy medicines, cough and cold remedies, and a number of other commonly used over-the-counter or prescription drugs can be extremely dangerous. Always READ THE LABEL to determine if the medication carries a specific warning about consuming alcohol. Ask your health provider or pharmacist about dangers involved in taking medication if you plan on drinking alcohol – and don’t forget to ask about dangers involved in mixing alcohol with dietary supplements or herbals.

Or make it easy on yourself—avoid alcohol altogether while taking any drug.

Underage drinking: alcohol is alcohol
An alarming number of parents (88 percent) mistakenly conclude that beer is safer than liquor, according to a survey by Widmeyer Research and Polling for the Center for Government Reform.

Parents should not allow teens to drink any alcohol, beer or otherwise. Teens’ brains are still developing, and alcohol can affect a teen’s ability to learn and remember, impairing academic performance. Teen alcohol has also been linked to future health problems, delinquency, suicide, and auto accidents.

Besides, it’s illegal to supply a minor with alcohol! Set a good example for your kids.

And a word about binge drinking.

We often hear from the media about young people, especially college students, drinking so much alcohol that they pass out, end up in the hospital, or worse, die from alcohol poisoning.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), binge drinking happens when someone’s blood alcohol concentration reaches .08% or higher. In order to reach .08%, men typically have to drink 5 standard drinks and women have to drink 4 standard drinks. Combined with poor nutrition and lack of exercise, excessive alcohol use can eventually lead to brain and liver damage or various cancers. The Harvard School of Public Health reports that nearly one-quarter of college students engage in binge drinking.

And binge drinking is also linked to accidents such as motor-vehicle crashes, falls, and drowning.

Parents can help their college age students to recognize and resist peer pressure which often leads to drinking excessive amounts of alcohol and binge drinking. Emphasize that young people don’t need to drink to have fun.

Do the Math
To enjoy responsibly, remember the facts: standard sizes of different drinks all contain equal amounts of alcohol. Don’t kid yourself into thinking beer or wine is “safer” or less “potent” than the “hard stuff.” In your body, all alcohol is the same.

With this important fact in mind, the following are some basic do’s and don’ts that are an essential part of safe drinking:

  • Do drink responsibly and in moderation.
  • Do have a designated driver.
  • Don’t drink alcohol if you’re on medication — prescription and non-prescription.
  • Do be aware that a typical or standard serving of beer, wine, or spirits contains the same amount of alcohol.
  • Parents should not allow underage children to drink alcohol.
  • Don’t drink alcohol if you are pregnant or nursing.
  • Don’t serve to or buy alcohol for people under 21.

When it comes to drinking alcohol, the old adage is true: It doesn’t matter what you drink, it’s really how much that counts.