Why doesn't alcohol feature nutritional information on labels?
Ever wondered why you can't find ingredients lists or nutritional information on alcohol labelling?
So have we.
When a delicious "adults only" bottle of Lewis Road Creamery's new Chocolate Cream Liqueur arrived on our desks, we looked at the label, noticed the absence of information about sugar and general calorie content, and began to wonder. Why do alcohol products not list what's in them?
This isn't an issue unique to booze in New Zealand – the world over, all wine, beer, and spirit products are exempt from the legal food standards that require nutritional information to be listed.
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It's quite the anomaly, considering even something as simple as plain bottled water still has ingredients and the chemical makeup of the product on the label.
We reached out to Lewis Road Creamery to see why the company had not listed nutritional information on its bottle, especially considering its primary product lines (milk, butter, ice cream, etc) are required for feature such details.
"Traditionally, the recipes for complex alcoholic beverages have been tightly held and being new to this we certainly haven't felt inclined to buck the trend," says Peter Cullinane, Lewis Road Creamery founder.
"We have concentrated on being 100 per cent compliant to the regulations rather than thinking outside of them."
The liqueur, a sweet and chocolatey delight, does have some detail about what's in it, although it's not specific or scientific.
"Ninety-nine per cent of the ingredients consist of fresh cream, 54 per cent Belgian Chocolate and triple distilled spirits, and these are declared on the label. The balance is a natural dairy emulsifier," says Cullinane.
This is consistent with other brands of dessert-type liqueur, such as Bailey's, which states it is "a unique Irish spirit made from a mix of cream, sugar, cocoa and the finest Irish spirits".
When you delve online and onto the Bailey's website, however, you can find out allergens information about the product (e.g. gluten, egg, dairy, and nuts), and the nutritional values (including sugar content) are listed.
Other brands like Pimm's are completely tight-lipped – the recipe is so secret you can't even find out from the label what type of liquor the product is based on, though you can search online to discover that it's a gin-based drink mixed with "herbal botanicals, caramelised orange, and delicate spices".
It many countries in the world, alcohol isn't covered by the same regulatory body as food, despite the fact it's a high-calorie consumable. Alcohol is normally banded together with tobacco, and is only required to list the percentage volume and standards drinks contained in the bottle, not any type of nutritional information.
In New Zealand, there has been discussion before about alcohol labelling – last in 2010, when an Australia-New Zealand review of food labelling by a panel concluded more evidence was required of alcohol's long-term effects before mandatory labelling was put in place.
The Ministry for Primary Industries states that "alcoholic beverages and foods containing alcohol have many of the same labelling requirements as regular food. However, beer, fruit wine, wine, and spirits, including liqueurs, don't require an ingredient list, nutrition information panel, or percentage labelling".
Labelling fits within Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ)'s jurisdiction. "Because the ingredients used in the manufacture of alcoholic beverages are 'substantially transformed' during fermentation, providing a list of ingredients is unlikely to provide useful information for consumers," says Lorraine Haase, communication and stakeholder engagement manager at FSANZ.
"As most alcoholic beverages are of minor nutritional significance, except for their energy and alcohol content, they are not required to provide a nutrition information panel."
It remains unclear why FSANZ decrees "energy and alcohol content" as insufficient in order to enforce mandatory nutrition labelling.
Even those from the alcohol industry itself think the absence of nutritional labelling on alcoholic products is outdated.
"It's a bit of an artefact from the development of the Food Standards Code," says Robert Brewer, Chief Executive of Spirits New Zealand. "Under clause 1.2.4 of the Code it's set out that alcohol is exempt [from ingredients listing requirements]."
Spirits New Zealand is ready for change, if it is ever required by law. "It's beginning to happen globally... consumers are asking more and more questions about what they consume," says Brewer.
"The spirits industry is waiting to see where the Government takes it. We're looking very closely, and we'd co-operate with the need for any kind of nutrition or energy-type labelling if the Government decides to pursue a process."
There are no confirmations that the Government or FSANZ are taking alcohol labelling into consideration.
Health-wise, it's nonsensical that consumers remain denied the ability to know exactly what they're putting into their bodies, especially considering alcohol is second only to fat in terms of caloric density.
You can do independent research about alcoholic products online, but it's not easy to find and information is often conflicting – reports exist saying Champagne is both low and high in sugar, for example.
Lewis Road Creamery clearly markets itself as a dessert-like product, and believes those who buy it know what they're drinking.
"While we haven't calculated the calorie content we have been quick to point out on the label itself that our liqueur is a 'treat' so we are sure people will see it for what it is – a delicious treat best enjoyed in moderation," says Cullinane.
Whether or not consumers in our health-conscious world will accept this as the case for much longer remains to be seen.
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