A new voluntary e-label scheme developed by CEEV and SpiritsEUROPE was recently launched to encourage wine and spirit producers to display nutritional information, calorie content, allergens advice etc. on their bottles.
The platform, called ‘U-Label’ uses QR code technology to allow consumers to see not only the ingredients, nutritional content, sugar content and so on, but also the supply chain, where ingredients are sourced from, whether they are sustainable and use good working practices.
For me, this is a step towards what I have felt for a very long time is essential for the alcoholic drinks industry – transparency.
It’s a great idea, but it won’t work. It doesn’t protect consumers or ensure they can access the information they need and want in order to make informed decisions, and it most certainly doesn’t go far enough. Let me explain why.
The hidden nasties in alcoholic beverages
Consumers picking up an alcoholic drink 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.
At Brand Relations, we have been looking closely at the beverages available and, more precisely, what they do not tell you on the label.
Take, for example, the cider market. 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. Again, let’s look at the sugar and calorie content of a craft beer. One chocolate stout brand we looked at, for example, contained 320 calories. That’s the equivalent of over two cans of Coca Cola. Similarly, the fashionable new pink and flavoured gins are packed with sugar. That is what makes them taste so good.
Then, of course, there is wine. We know all what’s in there, right? Well, maybe not. There has been a general drift in wine production to sweeter types of grapes. To quote Gavin Lavi Sacks, a viticulture researcher at Cornell University: “It appears that average alcohol content of wine has gone up by about 1 per cent volume by volume since the early 1990s, from about 12.5 per cent to about 13.5 per cent alcohol.” Of course, again, more alcohol means more calories in every glass. Part of this has to do with climate change, Sacks said, “since the warmer temperatures would hypothetically increase sugar accumulation at a faster rate than development of other desirable flavors.” But there’s also anecdotal evidence “of winemakers seeking riper flavors, to keep pace with consumer or critic expectations.”
Voluntary disclosure won’t work
Let’s face it, presented with the evidence above, can you really see these brands voluntarily offering information about the sugar content, calories and other nasties their drinks contain? I cannot.
If these brands were to be transparent, they would likely see a dramatic loss in sales, not to mention consumer trust. In order to be prepared to display their nutritional information, I believe they would be forced to reformulate their drinks – which no one wants to do. So, unless everyone is displaying the information (which will only happen with government legislation), no one will do it. So, a voluntary approach simply won’t work.
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?
No! I launched an alcoholic sparkling wine (Ibiza Ice) around seven years ago. 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. But at the very least, 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.
Is it for the government to legislate?
If food companies and soft drinks brands must show nutritional information so consumers can make informed choices about what they buy, surely everyone, including beer, wine and spirits suppliers should have to. A voluntary scheme simply won’t work. If the government is truly concerned about the obesity crisis, sugar consumption, rising rates of diabetes and the nation’s health, then it needs to take action to bring alcoholic drinks in line with other food and drink brands.
It’s also worth noting that this scheme is voluntary in the EU. So, I would ask the UK government, now that we don’t have to be guided by the EU on this issue, why can’t we make it compulsory in the UK?
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 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.
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.
So, in conclusion, much as I am pleased to see that there is now an accessible voluntary labelling scheme for the alcoholic beverages sector, I do not believe it will work. We need compulsory labelling, complete transparency, and a sugar tax – this is the only way the sector can move forward and ensure it acts responsibly and delivers what consumers want.