Put calorie labels on beer, wine and spirits, say public health experts

Alcoholic drinks are fuelling obesity epidemic and most have no idea how many calories their drinks contain

Beer, wine and spirits are fuelling the obesity epidemic and should be labelled with the calories they contain, say public health experts.

A large 175ml glass of 13% ABV (alcohol by volume) wine contains 160 calories, a bottle of alcopop contains 170 and a pint of 4% ABV beer contains 180.

But the vast majority of drinkers are unaware of the calorific value of their drinks, says the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH).

“I don’t think they think about it,” said Shirley Cramer, chief executive. “We go out at lunchtime and look at the sandwiches on display. We know and understand what the labelling means. We pick the sandwich or salad on the basis of the calories. But people don’t think about that when they go out on a Friday night.”

The RSPH polled 2,000 people to find out what they knew about the calories in alcohol and found that the vast majority had little idea.

More than 80% did not know, or incorrectly estimated, the calorie content of a large glass of wine. And almost 60% did not know how many calories there were in a pint of lager.

But there was support for the information being made available – 67% said they would welcome calorie labels on the packaging of alcoholic drinks.

The European commission has pledged to decide by December whether to put nutritional labels, including calories, on drinks. At the moment they are exempt because labelling is only required for food. Health experts are in favour but the alcohol industry is resisting the proposed change.

As part of the public health responsibility deal agreed with the government, UK drinks companies have agreed to put alcohol units on the labels – but not calories.

“We would argue that in addition to this information, calorie content should be included with some urgency,” says the RSPH’s position paper, which explicitly links alcohol and obesity.

“The public’s health is under threat from an obesity epidemic and harm caused by irresponsible consumption of alcohol,” it says.

“While there has been much work to look at the causes and consequences of the twin threats in isolation, less has been done to look at the links between alcohol and weight gain.”

In England about two-thirds of adults are obese or overweight, which is a risk for serious life-shortening diseases including heart disease, stroke, cancer and type 2 diabetes.

One unit of alcohol is 56 calories – so weaker drinks are less fattening, although those with mixers containing sugar will be higher in calories. Among adults who drink, nearly 10% of their daily calorific intake comes from alcohol, it is estimated.

But the calories are not the only problem. Alcohol cannot be stored in the body but is converted to acetate in the liver and then released into the bloodstream, inhibiting the amount of fat the body burns from food. Alcohol consumption also interferes with appetite regulatory hormones, leading drinkers to eat more.

There is evidence that heavy drinkers – those imbibing four or more drinks a day – are at greater risk of obesity than moderate or non-drinkers.

Binge-drinkers are also at higher risk of being overweight or obese than those who spread their drinking over a number of occasions.


Sarah Boseley, health editor

The GuardianTramp

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