The days of blissfully ignorant imbibing are numbered. Two measures—one government-mandated, one voluntary—will soon bring nutritional information to some restaurant menus and beer labels. But do we really want to know?
A12-ounce bottle of Founders Breakfast Stout contains 270 calories. Did that just harsh your buzz, or do you feel better informed? Or both? Governmental agencies and consumer advocacy groups have, over the past decade or so, argued that Americans want transparency about what’s in the food we eat. Fast-food calorie figures, certified organic stickers, the movement to label genetically modified foods: These are all predicated on the assumption that we want to know whether what we put in our bodies is good for us. But when it comes to beer, do drinkers care?
It depends on whom you ask. Next Level Marketing’s VIBE study, a 2015 national survey of more than 1,000 drinkers, found that 61 percent of respondents did not want to see beer, wine and cocktail calorie counts displayed on menus. But a 2012 survey conducted by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which also surveyed more than 1,000 adults, found that 68 percent of respondents do favor having chain restaurants list calories for alcoholic beverages.
Whether we want it or not, the information is coming. Menus at chain restaurants with more than 20 locations, like those at Applebee’s, Yard House, Chili’s and World of Beer, for example, will begin listing calorie counts for alcohol in May 2017 to comply with an FDA mandate.
Separately, as part of a voluntary move on behalf of the Beer Institute, a vast majority of beer sold in the U.S. must disclose calories, fat, protein, carbohydrates, a freshness date and a list of ingredients on packaging by the end of 2020. Public opinion isn’t unanimous on whether this is a good thing, and breweries, too, are divided.
Here’s how nutrition labels on packaged beer will roll out: In July, the Beer Institute, a trade group that represents small, medium and large breweries including Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors, HeinekenUSA, Constellation Brands Beer Division, Craft Brew Alliance, North American Breweries and others, announced its Voluntary Disclosure Initiative, which encourages breweries and beer importers to list nutritional information on labels by the end of 2020. So far, those six companies and their associated breweries (Goose Island, Elysian, Leinenkugel’s, etc.) have signed on, representing more than 80 percent of the beer sold in the U.S. That means that in a few years, consumers will pick up a beer bottle or can and see a serving facts statement similar to those on candy bars, sodas and cups of yogurt.
Much of the disagreement over whether or not to list nutritional information on labels boils down to big versus small breweries. Label redesigns can be costly, as are tests to determine nutritional information. That’s especially true for breweries that don’t have a lab on-site to calculate protein or carbohydrates.
“The last thing you want is one more thing to comply with when you’re a small business,” says Brett Joyce, president of Rogue Ales and a member of the Beer Institute’s board of directors. “So I said, ‘Hey, craft isn’t going to love this [Voluntary Disclosure Initiative], but I see why it’s important to the BI.’ When I talk to the craft folks, I say ‘Hey, it’s voluntary.’ Nothing forces a craft brewery to do it and nothing prevents any brewer from disclosing nutritional information right now, so there really is no impact here.”
Rogue, for its part, will not add nutritional info to its labels. “If we make 35 beers, that’s 35 we have to send out for testing,” Joyce says. “To put caloric values and nutritional information on the labels, that’s precious space better spent on more interesting or informative things. We think our consumer understands that when you’re drinking a craft beer, you’re drinking something with more in it already. I don’t think it’s especially interesting to the craft consumer down to the last calorie.”
Jim White, a registered dietitian and an Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson, agrees that while certain types of beer drinkers may not find this information relevant, others will. In contrast to Joyce’s opinion, though, White thinks it’s the choosier beer drinker who might be more mindful of nutrition: “Sunday afternoon football beer drinkers that are popping the Millers and Buds … and drinking five, six or seven might not care much about the calories. However, craft-conscious, in-shape Millennials who watch their diet could be looking at labels and choosing beers that are lower in calories. Or maybe they’d rather have one full beer than two light beers. It’s like comparing whole milk to skim milk; there’s a population who cares and a population who doesn’t.”
Ultimately, it’s up to individual breweries whether they want to include this information. But when it comes to the FDA’s mandated calorie counts on menus, chain restaurants don’t have a choice. Next May, they’ll have to begin listing them for any beer that isn’t a “temporary menu item” (on the menu for fewer than 60 days per year), or a “market test item” (on the menu for fewer than 90 consecutive days). Many seasonal beers could likely be exempted under the latter rule.
Beyond the womp-womp of finding out your favorite milk stout contains more calories than a large side of fries, there’s another potential consumer concern: a decrease in beer choices. Chain restaurants will expect breweries to provide calorie counts and other, harder-to-calculate nutritional information; if a small brewery doesn’t have those figures, would the restaurant drop its beers from the menu?
“We’ll still be able to work with every brewery, as small as someone like Ironfire in San Diego who has three handles with us nationally, all the way up to AB-InBev that has hundreds of handles with us,” says Greg Howard, director of beverage for Yard House restaurants, which has 8,760 tap handles of beer throughout its 65 locations. Howard says Yard House is in the process of redesigning its menus to list calories, noting, “It’s a bit of an eye chart, but ultimately, it fits on a page.” Though the final designs aren’t set in stone, Howard hopes that Yard House will be able to list calories based on approximate counts for different strength beers as listed in an FDA database.
It’s unclear at press time whether the FDA would accept that. If the menu was required to delineate calories for each beer and some small breweries didn’t provide that information to Yard House, it could be a different story. “There might be smaller breweries in states like Oregon, say, where there are so many breweries that only distribute in-state and aren’t concerned with being the biggest brewery in the world. They might simply not disclose [nutritional information] and let the chips fall where they may,” says Howard.
Paul Gatza is the director of the Brewers Association, a trade group that represents independent craft breweries, and he fears the scenario Howard just described. “I think we are in the land of unintended consequences. For the smallest brewers, posting calories is not a tough one; calories can generally be calculated based on a test in the brewery. The trouble is with the other nutrients that have to be available on request,” Gatza says. “They go beyond what a beverage lab can do. With that comes the chilling effect for a small brewery of trying to find out whether it should test the beer to sell a few kegs or just not bother. It separates the haves from the have-nots; the regional breweries can afford it and spread that cost over a larger number of barrels. Smaller guys have a harder decision to make.”
As do consumers. More information means confronting the caloric value of the beer we love and making decisions between having a beer or having dessert, or pounding out another two miles on the treadmill, or packing a salad for lunch the next day. Or, of course, sticking our heads in the sand and wishing for the halcyon days when beer was just beer, presumably calorie-free.