Nutrition labels for wine bottles: A good rationale, and a better one

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.

4 thoughts on “Nutrition labels for wine bottles: A good rationale, and a better one

  1. I don’t think a nutrition label makes wine seem more like food. As long as it’s still a 21+-only beverage stored apart from other things in the store, it won’t seem like other foods. And unfortunately, since the allowable tolerance on nutrition labels is higher than the tolerance on alcohol labeling, it won’t help with the problem of understating alcohol content on wine bottles. But it’s a good idea to understand more about what we consume, so on balance I support nutrition labeling.

    • For what it’s worth, I don’t think that wine should be a 21+ only beverage, either, but that’s a different conversation.

  2. This is one of those things that if you ask someone if wine should have nutritional labeling, they’ll say, “Yeah, sure.” But the reality is that it really is of no benefit to consumers and simply adds another burdensome regulation for wineries to follow. All nutritional labels for wine would largely be the same – no fat, negligible protein, and some carbohydrate. Calories for a serving will pretty much be between 120 and 145. There’ll be some potassium, a little sodium, and small amounts of vitamins and minerals. Doing nutritional labeling on wine will lead to higher wine prices. It could also lead to lower quality as copy for wine labels often needs to be submitted months in advance of bottling to get labels printed barely in time. Once the nutritional information is submitted, a winemaker couldn’t make any additional blending changes to the wine as it might slightly alter the nutritional makeup or calorie count of the wine.

    • To clarify, I agree that nutrition labeling on wine is a challenging proposition — and maybe an undesirable one — for other reasons. My point is that regulating wine more like food, and treating wine more like food in general, is a good thing for how we think about wine. That might mean a general nutrition label that doesn’t insist upon the sort of detail that would impose undue burdens. Foods already do this: every carrot is not the same, and nutrition labels on packages of carrots are based on some idea of an average carrot, not on samples from the actual carrots in those packages. Again, treat wine like food! Would that take care of your concerns?

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