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New Year May Bring Calorie Labels on Alcoholic Drinks

Posted - Jan. 2, 2004 at 2:40 p.m.



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Disciplined eaters who skip the hors d'oeuvres and decline the deserts during the holiday season often overlook another big source of calories - alcoholic beverages.

As Americans loosen their belts at the start of the new year, the federal government is weighing whether to require that calories, alcohol content, serving sizes and ingredients be listed on labels for wine, beer and liquor - just as they are on food containers.

In 1993, an attempt to institute an ``alcohol facts'' label like the nutrition facts label on packaged foods died for lack of consumer interest.

But Americans are hungrier for nutritional information amid an epidemic of bulging waistlines and the Atkins Diet legacy of peeling off pounds by cutting carbohydrates.

The U.S. Treasury Department agency that regulates labeling of alcoholic beverages is ``actively considering'' a petition by consumer groups to require a uniform label on each alcoholic beverage container, said Art Resnick, the spokesman for Treasury's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

Such a label would be in addition to existing warnings against drinking while pregnant or driving. Consumer groups also want to include federal dietary guidelines advising no more than two drinks a day for men and one for women.

``We'll look at it very, very closely and we'll deliberate and analyze each proposal that's found in that petition,'' Resnick said.

Under current labeling law, alcohol content must be listed on hard liquor and most wines, but not on beer. Light beer and low-alcohol wine lists calories but regular beer, wine and spirits do not.

Consumer groups, who filed a petition with the Tax and Trade Bureau in December to standardize labeling, say it would help people watching their weight comprehend how many calories alcohol adds to their diets.

Consuming three beers, such as Budweiser, is comparable to eating a McDonald's Quarter Pounder (420 calories). Drinking three premium malt beverages, such as Bacardi Silver or Smirnoff Ice, chalks up more calories than eating a super-sized box of McDonald's fries (610 calories). Wine has fewer calories than sweet mixed drinks and beer, but a 4-ounce glass or red or white still packs about 100 calories.

According to the National Institutes of Health, the average American adult consumes between 1,800 and 2,500 calories per day.

While the distilled spirits industry does not oppose the labeling petition, the beer and wine industry says nutrition information is available elsewhere and is not necessary on labels.

Jeff Cronin, a spokesman for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which filed the petition along with the National Consumers League, said most people ``vastly underestimate'' how many calories are in alcohol.

People think of the calories in alcohol as free calories and because alcoholic beverage calories aren't labeled, people don't have the information to put this in the context of their daily diets,'' Cronin said.For moderate drinkers, alcohol can make up a big chunk of a day's calories.''

Cronin said it is wrong that lemonade makers must list calories, while makers of alcoholic lemonade do not.

Marion Nestle, a professor of food nutrition studies at New York University, who favors the proposed labeling on alcoholic beverages, said Americans are suffering from an increasing level of anxiety and confusion stemming from ``market pressures to eat often, everywhere, and in larger and larger amounts.''

But Steve Lambright, counsel for Anheuser-Busch Companies Inc., said the St. Louis company already provides enough information about its products through its existing labels and Web sites.

``Furthermore, more than 75,000 adults via phone or e-mail contacted our company in 2003 and learned about the calories, carbohydrates, protein and sodium levels for all 30 of our brands,'' Lambright said.

Gladys Horiuchi, communications manager for the Wine Institute in San Francisco, said it is hard to educate people about nutrition on a label.

The Distilled Spirits Council, on the other hand, welcomes the proposed labeling on alcoholic beverages.

We think the American public is very conscious of weight and wants to know what they are eating and drinking and we are quite willing to explore a complete look at labeling,'' said Peter Cressy, president and chief executive of the Washington, D.C.-based Council.There's no question people are much more label conscious. The more information we provide people the better. I don't see a real controversy brewing.''

The British company Diageo, the world's largest alcoholic beverage producer, which makes Sterling Vineyard wines, Guinness, Johnnie Walker, Smirnoff, Baileys, Jose Cuervo and Tanqueray, announced earlier this month that starting in 2004, it would voluntarily provide information on alcohol content, serving size, macro-nutrients, carbohydrates and calories.

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(The Hearst Newspapers web site is at http://www.hearstdc.com)

c.2004 Hearst Newspapers

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