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Renewed Call for Alcohol Labeling

Quick: How many ounces in a standard serving of wine? liquor? beer?

Beer's easy: It usually comes in 12-ounce bottles or cans, which conveniently match the USDA's dietary guideline for a serving size. But wine and spirits are harder to size up, as we pour them into different-sized glasses.

A group of public health advocacy groups has seized the occasion of the advent of a new presidential administration to renew its five-year-old quest to persuade the federal government to require producers of alcoholic beverages to add informative labels to bottles. The labels would educate consumers about standard portion sizes and would also deliver information about beverages' alcohol content, calories, and other nutritional data (which even vary widely for beers, despite the standard serving size).

The presumption is that once people have the facts in hand, they'll use them to better manage their alcohol consumption. That should lead, the advocates agree, to fewer alcohol-related illnesses, injuries and deaths.

I'm all in favor of information. But I'm of two minds about how such a change is likely to affect people's drinking behaviors. If you've plunked down at the bar to have a few beers, glasses of wine, or cocktails, how likely are you to revise your plans based on what you read on the new label, which you're not likely even to see?

On the other hand, if you're thinking long-term and planning ahead, I imagine labeling might help: Knowing the alcohol content of various drinks and how much alcohol you want to imbibe could certainly help guide your purchasing habits.

One area in which I think labeling would be especially useful would be in helping people interpret the findings of various studies that attribute health benefits or ills to intake of certain amounts of alcohol. For instance, a study in the December issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society shows that low to moderate alcohol consumption seems to help slow older women's (but apparently not men's) cognitive decline. Not that the researchers in this study or most others are urging anyone to start drinking to achieve such health benefits, but if you're already a drinker, it would be useful to know where your consumption level falls along the light-moderate-heavy continuum -- something that, given varying portions and alcohol contents, can be hard to gauge on your own.

According to the USDA's 2005 dietary guidelines, "moderation" is defined as consumption of "up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. Twelve fluid ounces of regular beer, 5 fluid ounces of wine, or 1.5 fluid ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits count as one drink for purposes of explaining moderation."

While we wait for formal labeling, why not start by printing that out and taping it to the side of the fridge?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  December 15, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Alcohol and Drugs  
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Comments

the guidelines, as reported, don't say anything about calories per serving, which tells a lot about alcohol content. among wines, there is port, at 20 per cent, a portugese vino verdi at 9.5 per cent, and a lot in between.

Posted by: bnglfn | December 15, 2008 4:52 PM | Report abuse

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