Public-health researchers hope the new requirement will not only raise awareness but also spur drinkers to cut back on their drinking as a part of being calorie conscious. A new rule requiring restaurant chains to list calories for their alcoholic drinks poses a conundrum for makers of beer, wine and booze: Will drinkers change their habits?
For the first time restaurants across the country will have to list the caloric content of alcoholic beverages, though some outlets in states like New York and California already do so. In an industry where calories have been a relative mystery, the federal rule-which applies to chains with 20 or more outlets-will provide a new level of transparency about the often-overlooked calories in alcohol. Starting in May, the Food and Drug Administration will require chains like Applebee's and TGI Fridays to list calories next to all their menu items. That includes alcohol. Menus at Chili's, for instance, will soon tell patrons a margarita packs a whopping 300 calories and a 12-ounce bottle of Budweiser contains 150.
"If you don't want to get the 400 calories from an alcoholic beverage, you can easily swap for free water," said Margo G. Wootan, vice president for nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based consumer-advocacy group that lobbied the FDA to include alcoholic drinks in the new rules.
Studies have found calorie counts can influence food choices. Cochrane, a health-focused research network, last month published findings showing that when food calories are disclosed on menus, diners' orders have 7.8% fewer calories. Research on how calorie counts affect drinking are scant, but there is some evidence that such information might curb consumption. A study published last year in the academic journal Preventive Medicine estimated that imbibers in jurisdictions with menu-labeling requirements consumed on average 2% less alcohol than those in locales without mandates.
What motivates people to order a celebratory cocktail or a glass of wine can overpower concern about their waistlines. "People who want to drink a margarita are going to drink a margarita because they like the drink and it tastes good," said Frank Coleman, head of public affairs at the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S., the industry's main trade body. "People concerned about calories will choose to have something like tequila, club soda and lime." Until now, most drinkers haven't had a lot to go on in terms of calorie information. Some brewers print the calories in their beer on bottles and cans, but the practice isn't widespread. Wineries and spirits makers rarely list calories on their products, though some make them available online.
Laura Burke, a 22-year-old emergency medical technician in Hoboken, N.J., was shocked to discover the two margaritas she recently drank at a dinner out contained close to 1,000 calories in total. "My jaw just dropped," Ms. Burke said after googling the calorie count. "I do think it would impact my decision making," she said, if menus carried calorie counts.
The method suggested by distillers and small brewers assigns a calorie count of 96 to a 1.5-ounce shot of 80-proof gin, rum, vodka, or whiskey; it gives a 5-ounce glass of wine, red or white, 122 calories. A 12-ounce bottle of regular beer gets 153 calories, and light beer 103 calories. By that measure spirits look like the healthiest choice, but then add mixers and that beer starts looking a lot better calorie-wise. The Beer Institute, the trade body for big brewers, lobbied for calorie counts to be disclosed for individual brands and full drinks, including mixers. The FDA ultimately decided along these lines.
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