If you’re counting calories, don’t count on a wine label

I can tell the weather is getting warmer when I start getting e-mails about how wine can help you lose weight and be beautiful. But these come-ons raise the issue of why we don’t see many nutrition labels on wine bottles. I decided to look at the rules for voluntary nutrition labeling. Now I understand why winemakers don’t bother. (Photo by Diana Polekhina on Unsplash.com)

As beach season approaches, I inevitably get more e-mails about the health benefits of wine.  The usual formula is wine = health and beauty aid + weight loss, with the occasional happy-time chaser.  I ignore them unless they seem to be based on actual studies.  One e-mail I recently received looked potentially worthwhile (or at least was vague enough for me not to dismiss it outright) so I asked for the report.  What I got was a one-page summary of “facts” that came from a company selling nutritional supplements, and it contained no more information than I could have found from Ms. Google myself.  Cue the sad trombone sound.

But it did remind me that I’ve been expecting mandatory nutrition labeling for wine to come for many years.  I can honestly say I’ve never seen a nutrition label on a wine bottle in real life.  I wondered why not, so I decided to take a look at the rules for voluntary nutrition labeling.  Long, wonky story short (which I hope you’ll still read), I think I’ve figured why wine labels don’t have nutrition information.  It has to do with what wine producers probably think are too-strict nutrition labeling criteria.  These criteria conflict with the leeway producers have in other items on the label.

First, a bit of terminology.  Many people think of the list of ingredients and nutrition labeling interchangeably.  FDA requires both for food products sold in the U.S.  But in fact, they’re different.  Both are voluntary for wine producers. 

The list of ingredients is the part that wine drinkers hope will give clues to how a wine is made and if anything other than grapes and yeast are in there, since anything that’s in the bottle is potentially subject to inclusion.  I’ve discussed labeling for things like additives and genetically-modified organisms before.  It’s not clear that substances used in farming or processing that aren’t intended as ingredients would make it on the wine’s ingredient label, such as pesticides or fertilizer.  And there is an issue about how the absence of those substances can be discussed.  If they’re “generally recognized as safe” (a regulatory term) or are found in amounts below EPA or FDA tolerance levels, then stating affirmatively that they’re not there can be interpreted as pejorative to other products, which FDA has forbidden in the past.

Nutrition labeling contains amounts of and calories from fats, carbohydrates, protein, certain vitamins and minerals, and alcohol (at least for foods containing alcohol).  This seems pretty straightforward.  But in practice, it’s not.  For one, alcohol producers can put a general label on to account for variation, called a Statement of Average Analysis.  Amounts of carbohydrates, fats, protein, and alcohol get to be displayed as a range.  The other option for producers is to be more specific and list the “Serving Facts” for the wine in that bottle.

Obviously, there can be considerable variation in the quantities listed on a statement of average analysis, and that makes the information much less useful.  But even a more specific label can be variable because of TTB’s rules for tolerances in measurement of nutrients and calories. 

You’ll find these variations in other foods, too.  For example, FDA regulations allow a 20 percent variation in the total calories per serving listed on the label.  Considering that your average five-ounce glass of dry wine contains about 125 calories, that would mean a 50 calorie spread with variation. 

When TTB first finalized calorie tolerances for voluntary wine nutrition labeling in 2004 and again in 2013, they were pretty strict.  The actual number of calories per serving could not be less than 10 calories below what’s listed on the label, and no more than five calories above.  So far, so good, and a lot stricter than what FDA allowed.  But the calorie rule conflicted with TTB’s tolerance on the percentage of alcohol listed on the label.

Since the vast majority of a dry wine’s calories come from alcohol, what seems like a small difference in actual vs. labeled alcohol percentage can mean a wider swing in calories.  TTB allows an alcohol variation of ±1.5% for wines 14% alcohol by volume and under, and ±1% for wines over 14%.  According to my calculations, wines that meet the alcohol tolerances could easily go afoul of the calorie rules.  The allowable differences in alcohol content make more than a ±12 difference in calories, so more than the 10 or 5 allowed.  In fact, most wines would be restricted to a ±0.5% tolerance for alcohol by volume at most if producers went by the calorie tolerance TTB proposed.

No surprise, then, that producers weren’t happy about the rules and that’s probably why we haven’t seen many nutrition labels on wine.  As I’ve written before, alcohol percentages on producers’ wine labels are often less than what’s actually in the bottle.  A 0.5% reduction on the label could just be simple rounding.  But there’s also a perception that higher-alcohol wines are lower in quality, so some producers may try to label the bottle with the least alcohol possible.

To be fair, part of this is also a tax issue, since wines above 14% alcohol by volume are taxed by the U.S. government at a higher rate than those below 14%.  If it’s legal to have a variation in alcohol on the label (within limits) producers would naturally opt to pay less in taxes for the same product.  There is also some natural variability among batches of the same wine (although I’d hope that you wouldn’t see a 1.5% difference in alcohol there. If so, there are other problems at the winery). There’s also a label size issue, since most wine labels are pretty full already.

Whatever their motivations, wine producers asked TTB for more leeway, something more like what FDA allows.  And at the end of September, 2020, they got it.  The new rules allow a serving of wine to have up to 20% more calories than those listed on the label.  For actual calories lower than what’s on the label, TTB says calories must be “within a reasonable range below the labeled or advertised amount (within good manufacturing practice limitations).”  I’m not sure what that means, but I doubt that producers are worried about the wine having fewer calories than the amount listed on the label.

Allowing 20% more calories per serving than on the label definitely means that a wine can contain 1.5% more alcohol by volume than the labeled percentage and not exceed the allowable calorie tolerance.  And since most consumers aren’t counting on wine to meet a daily minimum requirement for calories, having fewer calories than those on the label isn’t really an issue.  Winemakers who were on the fence about nutrition labeling have more incentive to go ahead with it, if they have enough space on the label.

For consumers, the potential 25 extra calories in a glass of wine might not be a big deal.  Still, I’d rather be correctly informed.  A 20% tolerance in foods and beverages is too much.  Consuming 20% more calories than you thought you were each day isn’t something to take lightly.  Not to mention consuming more alcohol than you might have intended.  FDA and TTB need to do better.

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At this point, I thought I should give the background and math for the figures in this post.  Feel free to skip this part if you’d rather.

A serving of wine is 5 fluid ounces.  Fluid ounces are a measure of volume, not weight.  Five fluid ounces is ½ cup plus 2 tablespoons (or 5/8 cup).  By weight, this is more or less 150 grams.  A glass of wine that’s labeled as 13.5% alcohol by volume will contain about 15 grams of alcohol, or about 10% of the wine by weight.  This is because alcohol is less dense than water.  For example, 100 ml of water weighs 100 grams.  But 100 ml of ethanol (the alcohol in wine) weighs only 78.9 grams.  So it’s not a one-to-one calculation to get the weight of the alcohol in a glass of wine.

It’s important to have the weight of alcohol because calories are calculated based on the weight of the particular nutrient.  Carbohydrates and proteins both contain 4 calories per gram (cal/g), while fat contains 9 cal/g and alcohol contains 7 cal/g. 

The average glass of wine might contain 0.1 gram of protein, for 0.4 calories.  A dry wine that contains 15 grams/liter of residual sugar means that the five-ounce glass of wine will contain 2 grams of sugar, for 8 calories.  There are probably about another 2 grams of other carbohydrates in there, for another 8 grams.  That puts the non-alcohol total at around 16.4 calories per serving.

However, the 15 grams of alcohol contains 105 calories.  So a glass of 13.5% dry wine will have 121.4 calories, with alcohol making up 86% of the calories.  More residual sugar means more calories, but even a wine with 40 grams/liter of residual sugar will only contribute 6 grams of sugar, or 24 calories, to a serving.  Alcohol is clearly the calorie driver in wine.

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I assume now that you’re all vaccinated and are eating every meal possible in restaurants rather than continue to cook at home… but seriously, I feel like I want to get back to every place I enjoy and eat everything without shopping, cooking, or cleanup.  Not for every meal, but more than I expected.

If I am going to cook at home for just the two of us, it has to be something easy.  No need for leftovers, either.  Burgers are a favorite.  We bought some Impossible Burger brand meat substitute recently and I did some research on how best to cook it.  The Los Angeles Times did a whole bunch of testing and it’s worth following their advice.  The burgers turn out spectacularly well. The key points: fry the patties and use some oil in the pan, and don’t salt the patties before you cook them. Load up on other flavors (including some of the sauces in the article) rather than mixing anything into the burgers themselves.

So the recipe this time is something to serve with your burgers:  Green Bean, Edamame, and Corn Salad.  It’s not the season for any of these vegetables at the farmers’ markets yet, but you can get frozen corn and edamame (and you don’t need to thaw them), plus green beans are available year-round in the grocery store.  Everything’s cooked in a blazing-hot skillet and dressed with a little soy sauce.  It’s great with a burger, roast chicken, or salmon.

Cantine Borga uses old family photos on its labels. They look great on the wine store shelf or on your table! I didn’t realize that Cabernet Franc was grown in Italy, but many French varietals are grown in the Veneto and other northern Italian regions.

For wine, in this case I’d go with a lighter red, like Cantine Borga Cabernet Franc ($13).  Open it and put it in the fridge for a bit.  About 20 minutes is good.  The little chill makes it perfect in warm weather, and super easy to drink.  If you’re itching to get back out to eat, like I am, you’ll still need something to eat and drink at home. In this case, uncomplicated is still delicious!

Cheers!

Tom

Green Bean, Edamame, and Corn Salad

Serves 4-6

12 ounces green beans (I use the ready-trimmed and washed package), cut to about 1-inch pieces

1 cup frozen shelled edamame

10 ounces frozen corn (about 2 cups)

2-3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 small onion, finely chopped

½ of a red, orange, or yellow bell pepper, finely chopped

1-1/2 tablespoons soy sauce (or more, to taste)

1-1/2 tablespoons water

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a large nonstick skillet (at least 12 inches in diameter) until shimmery and almost smoking.  Add the green beans and a pinch of salt.  Stir fry, stirring pretty often, for 6-8 minutes, until the beans have lots of brown spots and are softened.  Remove the beans to a bowl or plate and set aside.

Heat another tablespoon of oil and add the onions and bell pepper.  Stir fry for a minute, then add the edamame and corn.  Fry for another 2-3 minutes, adding a little more oil to prevent sticking if necessary.  The corn will likely just begin to brown, which is what you want.  Stir in the reserved green beans. Stir in the soy sauce and water, plus some black pepper, and cook for 2 minutes more.  Taste for salt and soy.  Serve hot or warm.

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2 Responses to If you’re counting calories, don’t count on a wine label

  1. Pingback: Terroirist: A Daily Wine Blog » Daily Wine News: Beyond Cabernet

  2. Pingback: Liquor Industry NewsThe Wonderful World of Wine (WWW) Liquor Industry NewsThe Wonderful World of Wine (WWW)

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