Talking about nutrition labeling for wine is useful. But a new study (open-access article) assessing consumers’ interest in nutrition info on wine bottles limits its usefulness from the first sentence. The introduction begins, “Alcohol misuse…” Yes, alcohol is misused. But framing research in a way that says that alcohol is important because it is misused colors everything that follows: alcohol is going to be treated as a social evil; alcohol is going to be treated as a drug; alcohol is going to be treated as something that needs to be controlled and restrained; wine is going to be treated as alcohol. Those assumptions are especially out of place when we’re talking about nutrition labels, things usually used for food.
Labeling wine bottles with calorie counts might encourage more moderate consumption amongst some drinkers. That’s great. If some college women can be discouraged from binge drinking by being reminded of how many calories they’re ingesting, this is good. All the same, common sense says that nutrition labels are unlikely to discourage most alcohol misusers, and these researchers’ data reinforces that idea: according to their survey data, people who drink the most pay the least attention to nutrition labels and know the least about wine nutrition. Conclusion: nutrition labeling is likely to help some wine drinkers make better decisions, but not folks who have the biggest problem.
Still, no matter whether you think wine is an evil drug or a beneficial food, wine nutrition labeling is unlikely to lead to many less healthy choices. Some responsible, moderate drinkers might become unwarrantedly anxious over counting wine calories, but those folk are living with anxiety over counting calories in any case. The arguments against nutrition labeling aren’t about consumer health. They’re about the onerousness of labeling for producers and regulators, about aesthetics – wine labels are pretty, and nutrition info would make them uglier – and about how much you can squeeze onto a bottle.
Health is a good reason for wine nutrition labels. A better reason is about the rhetoric of food, and what labels mean for the way we think. Drugs have warning labels. Foods sometimes have warning labels – “Caution: raw meat must be cooked before consumption” – but foods also have nutrition labels. Wine already has warning labels about excess consumption, drinking and driving, and drinking while pregnant. In that sense, it looks like a drug. Adding a nutrition label would make wine look more like a food. Like putting wine on regular supermarket shelves, in the aisle next to the bread and the peanut butter, nutrition labels encourage the idea that wine can be one part of a healthy diet, that it’s something you eat and not something you use and that you wouldn’t drink a whole bottle at once any more than you’d eat a whole jar of peanut butter or a whole tub of ice cream in one sitting (which is to say: yes, it happens, but it’s not a great idea).
Wine is food. If we insist upon putting nutrition labels on food (and now’s a great time to think about which foods don’t come with nutrition labels), then we should put nutrition labels on wine. Arguments about alcohol misuse are only a smaller part of that picture.