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Alcohol: Where's the Calorie Label?

by Andrea Klausner, MS, RD

Just about every packaged food is required to have a Nutrition Facts label, which indicates the serving size and the amount of calories, fat, carbs, and other nutrients per serving. So why not wine, beer, and spirits? Such labels on alcoholic beverages would be pretty revealing.

Did you know, for instance, that the standard serving of wine is just 5 ounces, which can have anywhere from 100 to 190 (or more) calories, depending on the percent alcohol and sugar content? Or that the calories in a 12-ounce bottle of beer can range from 55 (Bud Select 55) to more than 200 (as in some brands of stout)? Want that 80-proof whiskey or tequila straight up? You’ll chug down about 100 calories in a 1½-ounce shot. Have a 10-ounce “Jack and Coke” and you’ll get about 200 calories—nearly as many as in an order of fast-food French fries. How about that White Russian? It will set you back about 400 calories in just 4 ounces—the equivalent of a double cheeseburger.

Accounting for the calories

American adults consume, on average, 100 calories a day from alcoholic beverages, according to a CDC survey. That average is deceptive, however, because it includes the many people who don’t drink alcohol or do so only occasionally, as well as those who consume it daily or in large quantities. As the survey found, about 20 percent of men and 6 percent of women average more than 300 calories a day from alcoholic beverages.

Alcohol provides nearly twice as many calories per gram as carbs and protein (7 versus 4 calories) and almost as many as fat (9 calories per gram). Plus, alcohol can have a disinhibiting effect on appetite control, so drinking before or during a meal may lead you to overeat and possibly make less healthful choices.

Another problem is that many people are simply unaware of how many calories their drinks contain. Even fastidious dieters may underestimate the calories or write them off altogether, largely because of the lack of labeling. Yet the “hidden” calories from one drink a day (150 on average) could lead to a weight gain of 16 pounds a year.

Cocktail Calorie Countdown

How many calories are in your favorite cocktail? Check this chart to find out.

Label confusion

Alcohol labeling laws are complicated, to say the least. The Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) oversees nearly all regulations pertaining to alcohol labeling—not the FDA or the USDA, as you might expect. And with a few exceptions, that agency has never required calorie labeling. A TTB ruling in 2013, however, laid out clearer guidance on how manufacturers can voluntarily report nutrition and other “Serving Facts” information on their products.

Building on that, the Beer Institute introduced a labeling initiative in July 2016 that encourages brewers to be more up front about their nutrition information. Among the companies that have signed on to provide calorie counts on labels are Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors, HeinekenUSA, and Constellation Brands, which together make up 80 percent of the U.S. beer supply. By the end of 2020, you can expect to see such labels on most domestic beers and many imported ones. Appeals by consumer advocacy groups over the years to make them mandatory have not been successful, largely due to industry pushback.

To make matters even more confusing, the FDA has jurisdiction over certain alcoholic products, notably wine beverages containing less than 7 percent alcohol (including wine coolers, wine products, and cooking wines) and non-malted beers—which is why you’ll see Nutrition Facts labels on them. You’ll also see those labels on de-alcoholized wine and beer and low-alcohol cider. Meanwhile, TTB regulations require alcoholic beverages that make nutrient claims, such as “low calorie,” “light,” or “low carb,” to list calories and other nutrition information.

Alcohol Calories: Tips for the Tippler

It's easy to exceed the recommended alcohol limits set by the Dietary Guidelines, since many people, including bartenders, serve larger portions. Here are some tips to help you limit your intake of alcohol and the calories that come with it.

Also see Alcohol: Your Questions Answered.