Nutrition labelling on beers

Written by Catherine Saxelby on Wednesday, 20 July 2016.
Tagged: food labels, label, nutrition

Nutrition labelling on beers

In the past, there was no way to tell how much carb, sugar and kilojoules were in your favourite beer. Now it’s easy! You just check the bottle, can or outer packaging or visit a website. Is this a good thing? Absolutely

Introduction of nutrition labelling to beer

In 2015, I joined a group of experts as part of the Lion Beer Advisory Panel. I was not much of a beer drinker. In fact, I knew little about beer making or its various types (think lagers, ales, porters, low-carbs, mid-strengths, low-strengths, wheat-brews) or brands. But I did know enough about labelling and analysis of the carbohydrates and sugars that are at the heart of beer. There’s virtually no protein or fat in beer so the kilojoules can only come from its alcohol (which is the main source) as well as from carbs via the barley malts (the minor source).

Why is it a good thing?

Nutrition numbers on beer? Really? In the past, there was never anything to check for, as beers are not required by food law to disclose anything despite the fact that alcoholic drinks contribute some 6 per cent of the nation’s kilojoule intake. Now you’ll know quickly and easily how many kilojoules (Calories) you’re consuming in those couple of after-work beers.

Here’s my 4 takes on beer and this new nutrition labelling:

1. Beer is NOT high in carbs

It never was. At less than 3 per cent (3 grams per 100 ml), there’s not enough carb there anyway to make a fuss. The small percentage that is there is made up of maltose, fragments of maltose sugars, fragments of fibre and other non-regular carbs that don’t fit neatly into any other grouping.

Compared to other carb foods, beer is way down the list. Regular beer has less than 3 per cent while soft drink has 11 and bread a high 40 per cent. Bananas come in at 20 per cent. Ditto for cooked potatoes, pasta and rice.

2. Beer is NOT high in sugar

Most people think there is at least double the actual amount of sugar in beer than there actually is. * Only a small, 6 per cent of Aussie males realise that there is generally less than half a gram of sugar in a 375ml stubby of full strength beer.

If you’ve ever made your own brew at home, you know what goes into beer. It sometimes needs some sugar to kick-start the yeast and get it fermenting the starches in malt. Bread is exactly the same – a small quantity of sugar is added as ‘food’ for the yeast at the beginning to start the conversion of starches into carbon dioxide gas to give structure to the risen loaf. Same with beer – except the starches get converted into gas or bubbles in the beer and alcohol.

3. Beer is NOT high in kilojoules or calories.

Surprisingly not. It’s all to do with the alcohol content. Ponder this - pure alcohol is packed with kilojoules (Calories), having almost twice that of carbohydrate or protein, gram for gram. The more alcohol present, the more kilojoules.

So beer at 4 to 5 per cent alcohol will always score lower than wine at 12 for white or 14 for red or spirits at 30 or 40 per cent.

So where does the famous beer belly come from then? Usually it’s the sheer number of drinks consumed as well as the type of food that accompanies it. Alcohol loosens inhibitions so once you have more than a couple of drinks, you may eat greasy salty foods you’d never normally consume.

Think of all the potato crisps, corn chips, salted hot fries, fried nuggets and cheesy pizza wedges. They taste good after a few drinks but do a lot of damage. They are low in nutrition, high in refined carbs and bad fats, high in salt. Plus they are hard to stop at just one!

Per 100mL, beer has a tiny 143 kJ whereas red wine has 324 and a spirit mixer (rum and cola) has 255. Or if you compare serves:

  • A 375mL can or stubby of regular beer has 536 KJ/127Cals
  • A 170mL glass of red wine comes in at 551kJ/131Cals
  • A 375ml mixer drink has a hefty 956kJ/228Cals (thanks to all that fizzy drink).

Note: to convert kilojoules to calories, divide by 4.2 or simply by 4. So a stubby with 536kJ converts to 127 calories.

How the drinks compare

Drink Typical size (mL)** Kilojoules Calories
Beer - full strength 375 536 127
Beer - mid strength 375 450 107
Beer - low strenght/light 375 386 92
Cider 375 698 166
White Wine 170 507 121
Red Wine 170 551 131
Dark Rum 30 266 63
White Vodka 30 266 63
Mixer (Rum and Cola) 375 956 228
Cream Coffee Liqueur 30 409 97

Source: AUSNUT Database 2011-13

** Typical of what’s served in pubs, clubs and bars. Usually more than the set standard drinks used to measure alcohol intake. A standard drink provides 10g of pure alcohol which can come from a middie or 285mL of full-strength beer OR two middies of 570mL of light beer OR 100ml of wine or 30 mL of rum, vodka or brandy .

4. Forget low-carb beer

Having stated that beer is not high in carbs to start with, that brings me to the vexed topic of low-carb beers. These are an oxymoron.

Diet-conscious drinkers have flocked to low-carb beer like Hahn's Super Dry and Summer Bright, but you're better off reaching for a light or low-alcohol brew. Doesn’t matter whether it’s a mid-strength or low-strength, any beer with a lower alcohol is a winner. Why?

Well, low-carb beer has the around the same alcohol content as full-strength regular beer, which is 4 to 5 per cent. So you save a little on the carbs but make up for it with the full alcohol – so the kilojoules (and the effect on your waistline) end up around the same.

See my post on low-carb beer.

Responsible drinking

Keep in mind that for long-term health, the NH&MRC recommends no more than two standard drinks (generally smaller than typical serves) a day for both men and women.

If you drink out, it recommends no more than four drinks over any 24 hour time period.

So enjoy a glass of beer but drink in moderation and as part of a balanced lifestyle.

The bottom line

I believe it’s a good move to have full nutrition panels on beers – at the point where you’re going to buy or drink it. This is a good start and I hope the rest of the alcohol industry will follow. It would be great to have it on mixer drinks too, like Breezers and Cruisers.

In a culture where drinking is common and accepted, it makes sense to label that which we know is part of the obesity problem and speak from a position of better knowledge.

According to a Lion survey * , 67 per cent of Australian males believe that if nutritional information was available on alcohol packaging, it would help them make more informed choices

* Research conducted by FiftyFive Five on behalf of Lion (October 2013) with 962 adults aged 18-75

Disclaimer

Catherine Saxelby is an accredited dietitian who is a member of the Lion Beer Advisory Panel which oversaw the introduction of full nutrition labelling on all of Lion’s brands of beers in 2015. For more information, go to www.beerthebeautifultruth.com to read what goes into beer and see the full range of beers available with labelling.

Catherine Saxelby

About the Author

Catherine Saxelby knows nutrition! She is an accredited nutritionist, food commentator, blogger and award-winning author. Her latest book Catherine Saxelby's Food and Nutrition Companion answers all those tricky questions on healthy eating, diets and supplements. It draws together a lifetime of advice and gives you all you need to know to eat right! It's a complete A to Z. A handy desk go-to reference.