The complete picture: The need for alcohol labeling
By Tom Pahl, NCL Policy Intern
Tom Pahl is a 2021 graduate of Skidmore College, where he received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science.
Just about every consumable food and drug product has a label with information about the contents—from over-the-counter medications, dietary supplements, sodas, and chips to the candy bars we nab from a convenience store. And consumers rely on these labels to make sound purchasing decisions. Surveys show that about 77 percent of Americans use the standardized Nutrition Facts label required by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Yet, there is one type of consumable product where we don’t have this option: alcoholic beverages.
It is not an overstatement to say that alcoholic beverages have been part of human civilization since early humankind. Archeologists trace the first wine drinks to China around 7000 BC. Additionally, beverage alcohol has a fabled history in the United States, underscored by the so-called “noble experiment” called Prohibition from 1920-1933. In fact, Prohibition is the reason that regulation of most alcoholic beverages—including content labeling—is the responsibility of the Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).
Yet, the Federal Alcohol Administration Act, passed in 1935, created an exception to the rule. When alcoholic beverages contain more than 7 percent alcohol by volume, a standard measure known as ABV, TTB requires alcohol labeling. However, below 7 percent ABV, alcohol labeling falls under the purview of the FDA. This means different requirements for grape wine, sparkling or carbonated wine, fruit wine, saké, wine coolers, cider, and de-alcoholized or partially de-alcoholized wine. The requirements also apply to beers not made from malted barley, but instead malted barley substitutes, or made without hops like kombucha and gluten-free beer.
Why does this matter? Because alcoholic beverages regulated by FDA have the same standardized Nutrition Facts label as a soft drink (along with the ABV). This includes hard ciders and sparking wines that have taken the world by a storm in the past few years. In contrast, TTB allows the manufacturers of all other alcoholic beverages to “decide” whether to include nutritional labeling and, guess what? Surprise, surprise, the vast majority have no nutritional labels. Even more confounding, in any refrigerator, a bottle of beer and a bottle of hard cider made by the same company—to wit, Sam Addams beer and Angry Orchard Cider, made by the Boston Brewing Company—the beer has no nutritional information and the cider is fully labeled, proving that unless companies are required to label, they don’t do it!
It is true that TTB requires beer, spirits and wine makers to put specific information on product labels – including the type of alcohol, the alcohol content (ABV or proof), the net contents of the beverage, the coloring materials used, whether the beverage contains allergens, and the country of origin. As important as they are, these facts have nothing to do with health and nutrition and this information is more important than ever before due to the epidemic of obesity in the United States (almost 20 percent of men and 6 percent of women consume more than 300 calories from alcohol per day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and higher rates of diet-related diseases.
We know that when required by FDA, alcohol beverage manufacturers have figured out how to put a complete alcohol content label on their products. National Consumers League, along with other consumer organizations and public health groups, will continue to press TTB to issue a final rule requiring a mandatory Alcohol Facts label on all beer, wine and distilled spirits products. In 2021, consumers deserve the kind of robust labeling we see on other foods and which consumers understand, use, and need to make informed buying choices.