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Although having two glasses of wine may seem innocuous, experts say some leading brands contain more sugar than recommended. Peter Meade/Getty Images
  • Two glasses of some wines contain more than the recommended daily limit of sugar and more calories than a hamburger.
  • However, alcohol is exempt from food and drink labeling rules, so consumers are mostly unaware of calorie and sugar loads.
  • Health experts are pushing for clear nutritional labeling on alcoholic products to help reduce sugar and alcohol consumption.

The Alcohol Health Alliance UK (AHA), representing over 60 health organizations, recently commissioned an independent laboratory to test 30 bottles of red, rose, white, sparkling, and fruit wines sold in the United Kingdom for sugar content.

The resulting analysis, which appears on the AHA’s website, revealed a “wide variation of sugar and calories between products.”

The report noted that two glasses of some wines can exceed the daily recommended sugar amount, but most alcohol labels do not share this information.

Suppressing such details may lead consumers to imbibe extra calories and sugar unknowingly, health experts warn.

Foods and nonalcoholic beverages are subject to stringent nutritional labeling standards. These rules make calorie and sugar information readily available to consumers.

Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, chair of the AHA, calls the exception with alcohol “absurd”:

“[T]his information is not required when it comes to alcohol — a product not just fueling obesity but with widespread health harms and linked to seven types of cancer.”

For Alison Douglas, Chief Executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, product labeling on alcoholic beverages is “woefully inadequate, when alcohol claims 70 lives a day in the U.K.

Medical News Today asked Holly Gabriel, RNutr, nutrition manager at Action on Sugar in the U.K., about this labeling dilemma. Gabriel contributed to the AHA report.

In an exclusive interview, Gabriel commented:

“[D]ue to the lack of labeling and lack of awareness about sugar content of alcoholic drinks, there is less scrutiny for manufacturers. In the U.K., we have a soft drinks industry levy [that] completely excludes alcoholic drinks and alcohol replacements such as dealcoholized wine. It is impossible for consumers to make an informed choice when they don’t have the full nutrition information on ingredients.”

Study contributor Gemma Crompton, policy and public affairs manager at Alcohol Focus Scotland (AFS), also told MNT:

“Unlike food and nonalcoholic drinks, alcoholic drinks are only required to display the volume and strength (in ABV) and common allergens. Information on nutritional values — including calories and sugar content — ingredients, or health warnings is not required and is therefore largely absent from labels. Instead, the U.K. government relies on voluntary action from the alcohol industry.”

Modern diets typically contain foods and drinks with sugars. Sugars are split into three main groups:

  • naturally occurring sugars
  • added sugars that are added during cooking, processing or eating — they include table sugar, dextrose, high fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, honey, and agave
  • free sugars include all added sugars plus naturally occurring sugars, including those released by juicing fruits and vegetables

Too much sugar can contribute to tooth decay, weight gain, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and increased cancer risk factors.

U.K. government guidelines suggest that adults consume no more than 30 grams (g) of free sugars a day. This is equivalent to roughly 2.3 tablespoons.

The American Heart Association recommends daily added sugar limits of 36 g for men and 25 g for women.

However, the AHA report found that two medium-sized glasses of wine can hold almost the entire recommended amount of sugars.

None of the 30 wines studied listed sugar content on their labels.

The current analysis also found that wines with the most sugar were the lower-strength products. The AHA researchers are concerned that people who choose lower-strength alcohol as a healthier option unknowingly consume more sugar.

This can increase the risk of developing a host of chronic diseases.

MNT asked Crompton if the high sugar content in lower-strength wines drives consumption more than the alcohol itself:

“While a sweet drink may be more palatable for some and lead them to drinking more, alcohol consumption is driven by the low price, how easily available it is, and the high volume of marketing.”

“People are often unaware of the risks associated with drinking, not only from the alcohol itself, but from its contribution to calorie intake and risk of obesity.“

– Gemma Crompton, study contributor

Calorie counts

The AHA also reported that two medium-sized glasses of the most calorie-dense wines contained more calories than a McDonald’s hamburger.

These wines were also higher-strength beverages.

However, only 20% of the drinks examined displayed calorie content.

The AHA report says that alcohol makers are stalling on label changes. Producers cite cost factors and assert that consumers can access such information online.

However, Crompton disagreed:

“In reality, few people access this information online. In the U.K., we have had two decades of the industry failing to deliver on their promises to act voluntarily.”

Gabriel believes that this reluctance results from “a long history of government lobbying by the alcohol industry and a lack of willingness by the government to take a stand.”

Crompton suspected that alcohol manufacturers fear consistent, clear labeling could impact sales. She argued that legal mandates for labeling are the only way to ensure that people get accurate details on products.

“People want and need reliable information directly on products where it can usefully inform our decisions,” she said.

The World Health Organization (WHO) holds countries responsible for devising and enforcing public policies to reduce alcohol use and harm.

It recommends evidence-based strategies, including restricting access to alcohol, regulating marketing, and health warnings, all promoted by the AHA.

Gabriel encouraged consumers to check for labeling, compare products, and choose beverages low in both alcohol and calories. She also suggested writing to beverage makers and retailers to complain about high sugar content and lack of labeling.