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Alcohol Labels

Will the voluntary system for nutritional labelling for alcoholic drinks be a success or failure?

By Richard Horwell, Brand Relations

We have recently seen the launch of a new voluntary e-label scheme for alcoholic beverages. This has been developed by CEEV and SpiritsEUROPE.

It is a positive step as we need complete transparency in the alcoholic beverage category, as we have in other sections of the industry. However, although I’m pleased to see the schemed launched, I am very far from convinced that it will work.  My concern is largely based on the fact that it is voluntary when it needs to be compulsory.  Consumers have the right to know what they are putting in their bodies, I can’t think of a single good reason not to compel alcoholic beverage companies to declare their ingredients and nutritional information – just as the manufacturers of soft drinks are required to do. 

Early in 2021 the Wine & Spirit Body introduced labelling rules for No & Lo Alcohol Drinks. This was to bring them in line with other food products. Unfortunately, alcoholic drinks were not included   This suggests that their claims to care about customers are somewhat hollow. 

The hidden nasties in alcoholic beverages

Consumers picking up an alcoholic drink (or two) from the supermarket will, of course, be aware of the alcohol content (or ABV) and how many units of alcohol that bottle or can of drink contains. But what else is in there? The average consumer may assume different varieties of fruit, fermented with varying levels of sugar and yeast. Yet the reality can be very different – and not always in a positive sense. Often the ‘healthy’ ingredients are far lower than expected and the ‘unhealthy’ ones, much, much higher. 

Take the cider market, for example. Big-named fruit cider brands are marketing themselves as “premium”. This implies that the cider is packed with apples and the other fruit shown on the label to give it a great flavour. Although cider must contain a minimum of 20% apple juice, by the time the cider is diluted to 4 or 5%ABV, the juice content in the package is much, much lower. In fact, these ciders can contain as little 10% apple juice. So, you are not drinking purely fermented apples, as the idea of premium cider suggests but, in fact, a great deal of water and chemicals and, of course, sugar – which means calories. One brand’s standard bottle contains an enormous 53g of sugar and over 300 calories. They tend to be sold in a pack of four. So, an evening of drinking a four pack of premium cider could result in you consuming around half your daily calorie intake and a crazy 20 teaspoons of sugar. It is, essentially, an alco-pop.

The other huge trend at the minute is craft beers. How do they shape up on the sugar and calorie front? To take just one example a brand of chocolate stout we examined, has 320 calories. That is equivalent to more than two cans of Coca Cola. 

Wine has also been getting higher in calories as the average alcohol content has increased, and there is a general trend toward using sweeter grapes. 

Voluntary disclosure won’t work

Presented with the evidence above do you believe the premium cider brands will disclose that enormous amount of sugar and very small percentage of actual apples in their ingredients? The same for craft beers. They are currently prominent in supermarkets and very much on-trend. Imagine the horror story if they had their nutritional contents displayed on the cans or even via a QR code.  Their sales would be likely to be hit dramatically as consumer trust plummeted. Without legislation to enforce the requirement for displaying nutritional information I’m convinced that nothing much will happen.

Why e-labels?

Of course, what any food or drink brand wants to tell you on their label is why you should buy that product. If you are buying a nice bottle of wine, you are probably interested in whether it is dry or medium, the flavour profile, what meals it compliments and so on. 

I can understand that these brands don’t want to be pushing the less palatable (pardon the pun) aspects of their drink in people’s faces. But why are they not accountable when other F&B brands are? It’s mandatory with cola or smoothie brands and luxury food choices. The consumer has the information in front of them and can make the choice as to whether they ‘treat’ themselves occasionally or make heathier choices.

Brands could argue that there’s not enough room to display all ingredients and nutritional information on a small can or bottle. That’s fair, right? 

Absolutely not! I launched an alcoholic sparkling wine (Ibiza Ice) around seven years ago. All I was required to display on the packaging was the 5.5% ABV. But I made the decision to put all the ingredients and nutritional information on my product because I believe in transparency and, indeed, it is listed on the product now in four different languages. So, you can’t tell me there isn’t room on the packaging to tell consumers what’s in there. There is certainly room for basic information and QR codes and websites can give consumers more detailed information. At a minimum the ingredients should be on the bottle/can.  However, the basic information should be available without the need to own a smartphone, download a scanner, or spend additional time accessing information remotely. It should be there, in your hand, when you pick up the product. 

Should there be a sugar tax on alcoholic drinks?

Hand-in-hand with the issue of labelling is the question of whether alcoholic drinks should be subject to a sugar tax, just as soft drinks are. There is no doubt that the sugar tax has turned the soft drinks market around. It has made drinks brands reconsider their ingredients, reduce their sugar content, and create drinks that are (at least slightly) healthier. The sugar tax highlighted the issues and forced brands to do what consumers already wanted. Remember, today’s shoppers are far more aware of what they are, well, consuming.  And this awareness and desire to know is now extending to alcoholic drinks too – especially among the younger generation. 

If this government is serious about tackling obesity, it must address the level of sugar in alcoholic offerings too. Otherwise, obesity will remain a problem, as will associated health conditions such as diabetes and certain cancers. 

When the sugar tax was introduced, I naturally assumed it would apply to alcoholic drinks too – and I still think it should.  Just take a look at this report from Action on Sugar:  There are some truly shocking examples in both the ready-to-drink and cider categories. 

What should drink brands be doing?

I strongly believe all new brands and start-ups that are launching an alcoholic beverage need to have transparent labelling, regardless of whether they are part of a voluntary scheme or not. This, in turn, will mean they have to be mindful of their formulations and ensure their drinks are not just flavoured sugar water with alcohol added. 

For example, at Brand Relations, we have just been involved in the launch of a rum punch called Punch M.  All the ingredients, sugar content, calories, etc. are listed on the packaging. I will not work on a brand unless it has transparent labelling. We feel this is the right thing to do, as we have a responsibility to the people who buy the brands we help develop. 

I believe that, if responsible labelling does – as it should – become compulsory, many brands will be forced to overhaul their recipes in order to avoid being shamed by what they have been tricking customers into consuming. Our brands will not have to.  And any brand intending to be in the sector for the long haul would do well to future proof themselves now by being completely transparent about what goes into their drinks.  

I do believe the tide will turn. It is inevitable that one day we’ll see full labelling on alcoholic drinks. It just doesn’t appear to be a priority for the government right now. But it should be. Consumers can spend their whole week watching what they eat and drink, checking labels and calories and then completely destroy the good they have done on a Friday night out. If they were better informed about the rubbish and the calories that were in their drinks, they could make more informed decisions no matter how drunk they got

The alcohol culture is receding in our younger adults, who are much more interested in health and under far less pressure from peers to drink. Choosing juice or a soft drink is not taboo for today’s younger demographic. In addition, they are technologically savvy, meaning they can assess what they want to be drinking. 

So, in summary, although I am pleased to see a voluntary labelling scheme for the alcoholic beverages sector that is easy to access, I am convinced that it will not succeed. Complete transparency and compulsory labelling, together with a sugar tax for these products are essential. We look to the government to take action.


Richard Horwell is the owner of Brand Relations, a specialist food and drink marketing and branding company based in London. Over the last 13 years, Brand Relations has been behind the launch and development of over 100 brands in the UK. Richard has also built up and sold companies of his own in the Food and Beverage sector. He has over 30 years’ experience in marketing FMCG brands around the world, having lived and worked in the UK, USA, Australia and the Middle East.