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Reducing harm caused by alcohol

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Alcohol labelling reform is way past its sell by date

In this blog Holly Gabriel, RNutr, Nutrition Manager at Action on Sugar shares the shocking findings from their sugar survey of alcoholic drinks and explains why calorie information must be included on packaging.

In January 2020, as part of Action on Sugar’s annual Sugar Awareness Week, we ventured into a new world of alcoholic drinks. Traditionally, our research focuses on highlighting the sugar and calorie content of food and drink categories that contribute to poor diet, obesity and related health conditions. Whilst alcohol of course contributes to this, we live in a world where ‘alcohol’ seems to sit on the outskirts of food and drink legislation.

Even though we may be all aware that excess sugar consumption contributes to obesity, type 2 diabetes, various cancers, liver damage and tooth decay, sugar-sweetened alcoholic drinks have somehow managed to completely avoid scrutiny under the UK Government’s sugar reduction policies. Those policies, intended to help reduce sugar intake across the UK population and to reduce rates of people living with obesity, include the voluntary Sugar Reduction Programme, the Soft Drinks Industry Levy and voluntary front of pack nutrition labelling. All of which ignore alcoholic drinks.

You could argue that perhaps the nutritional information for traditional beers, wines and spirits remains fairly static, but do we really know what’s in our drinks? Recent research has shown that consumers believe current alcohol labelling isn’t good enough[i]. It is baffling that you can buy alcoholic drinks without being told what is in there - you get more information on a pair of jeans than on some alcoholic drinks! Alcohol labelling is still for the most part, voluntary and self-governed with the only mandatory requirements being the volume of the container, the % ABV (alcohol content), and whether common allergens are present.

Our Sugar Awareness Week survey looked at a total of 202 ‘ready to drink’ alcoholic beverages sold in-store and online.  Out of the 154 products collected in-store, nutrition information on pack was shockingly low making it difficult for consumers to know exactly what they are drinking. The popular ‘WKD Blue’ had no nutrition labelling and contained 59g sugar per 700ml bottle - that’s 15 teaspoons! and the only way we could find this out was to send this product for independent analysis[ii]. It seemed there was a tougher stance on alcohol legislation during the so-called gin craze of the 18th century[iii] than in 2020. If governments are really committed to preventing health harms and reducing health inequalities, it’s time they stepped in and took control of the alcohol industry as well as the food and drink manufacturers.

In July 2020, we had our first sign of a breakthrough from the UK Government as the UK Department of Health and Social Care announced in their policy paper ‘Tackling obesity: empowering adults and children to live healthier lives’[iv], an acknowledgement that it’s not just food and drink that add to our energy intake, alcohol is also highly calorific. They pointed out that amongst other things:

  • Alcohol accounts for nearly 10% of the calories consumed by those that drink alcoholic products
  • Each year around 3.4 million adults consume an additional day’s worth of calories each week from alcohol

Crucially, they committed to consulting, before the end of the year (2020), on making companies provide calorie information on both alcohol packaging and for alcohol sold in cafes, pubs and restaurants. The Scottish Government have also committed to considering mandatory labelling if progress by industry isn’t satisfactory in their Alcohol Framework 2018: Preventing Harm [v]. Disappointingly the commitment didn't mention the need for full nutrition labelling or even the inclusion of sugar as well as calorie labelling. If UK governments aren’t careful, they will be in danger of being left behind by the EU, who announced by the European Commission in their cancer action plan[vi] in February, a commitment to mandatory ingredients and nutrition declarations on alcoholic drinks labelling by the end of 2022.

Whilst the commitment is now a little past it sell by date, the expected consultation will be welcomed. But we must keep up momentum, as we desperately need an improved UK wide approach to alcohol labelling, that considers the entire spectrum of information required for everyone to make informed choices.

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28 April 2021