Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Do larger wine glasses contribute to overdrinking and obesity? Alcohol nutrition labeling debated

The UK’s Royal Society for Public Health recently issued a warning that “the insidious increase in the size of wine glasses in bars and restaurants in the past decade” has led many of us to have “unwittingly increased the number of invisible calories we consume in alcohol.” They called for food labeling laws to include calorie content in alcoholic beverages, which are exempt. Writing in the British Medical Journal, RSPH chair Professor Fiona Sim cites a survey which found that 80% of adults did not know the calorie content of their drinks, and speculates that in addition to gargantuan glasses, this may be contributing to the obesity epidemic in the UK. According to the Professor, the average portion served is a whopping 250 ml. (8 ½ ounces!) If that’s true I can’t wait for my trip to the UK this October.
 While public health officials are right to be concerned with rising obesity rates and abuse of alcohol, in this case they have missed the mark. For one thing, if larger glasses have become fashionable it is likely because they are believed to enhance the flavors and aesthetic appreciation of the wine, in part because of the space above the pour within the glass. It seems to me that would have the effect of slowing the pace of drinking, not increasing overall drinking. I would further venture that wines ordered by the bottle are typically shared between two diners regardless of glass size, and by-the-glass pours are unlikely to be a third of a bottle – the unit economics of that don’t pencil out. On this side of the pond, I am more likely to get too small of a pour in too small of a glass.
Professor Sim goes on to compare two glasses of wine to the caloric content of a McDonald’s order of fries, and notes that it exceeds recommended daily alcohol allowance for women.  She points out that most women “do not realise that two large glasses of wine, containing 370 calories, comprise almost a fifth of their daily recommended energy intake.” But 17 ounces is a lot of wine under most circumstances, and two of the more typical 5 ounce pour of red wine contains around 250 calories, close to half of the number cited in the article.
The article justifies inclusion of alcohol calories in food labeling because “there is no reason why calories in alcohol should be treated any differently from those in food.” It does not provide evidence that labeling laws have had any influence for other foods however. Indeed, the increasing rates of obesity despite nutritional labeling mandates suggest otherwise. It would be interesting to know if the survey subjects could accurately estimate the calories in their fries any better than in their vino (I doubt it.)

On the question, of labeling, we may have an answer soon. As of this year, in the U.S. all restaurant chains with more than 20 outlets will have to provide calorie counts for alcoholic beverages in addition to food items.  So if McDonald’s decides to offer wine to augment their fine dining experience (happy meal for mom and dad?), you will be able to make an informed decision. I expect you will find wine a more nutritional choice than a 17-ounce cola.