Health experts are calling for better alcohol labelling as it is revealed that wine can contain anywhere between 0g and 59g of free sugars per bottle.
Member organisations of the Alcohol Health Alliance commissioned an independent laboratory to analyse 30 bottles of red, white, rosé, fruit and sparkling wine from the top ten leading wine brands in the UK.
The results exposed the wide variation of sugar and calories between products. With this information missing from most alcohol labels, drinkers are being kept in the dark about just how much sugar and calories are in the products they buy.
Table 1 showing the five products with the highest sugar content from sample examined
|Description||Product Details: Type||Sugar per 175ml, medium glass size (g)||Sugar per 175ml, medium glass size (tsp)||Sugar per 750ml, bottle size (g)||Sugar per 750ml, bottle size (tsp)|
|Barefoot Bubbly Pink Moscato||Sparkling wine||13.8||3||59.1||15|
|Barefoot Pink Moscato||Rosé wine||11.1||3||47.7||12|
|Echo Falls Fruit Fusion Summer Berries (9%)||Fruit wine||9.2||2||39.3||10|
|Echo Falls Sparkling Summer Berries||Sparkling wine||8.5||2||36.6||9|
|Echo Falls Fruit Fusion Summer Berries (5.5%)||Fruit wine||8.2||2||35.2||9|
Government guidelines recommend no more than 30g of free sugars per day for an adult – yet it’s possible to reach almost this entire amount of sugar by drinking just two medium-sized glasses of some of the most popular wine on the market.
The analysis found that the products containing the most sugar tended to be the lower-strength wines. With no legal requirement to display sugar content on alcohol labels, drinkers opting for a lower-strength alcohol choice, perhaps thinking this is a healthier option, are unwittingly upping their daily sugar intake. This can lead to an increased risk of health conditions such as type-2 diabetes and tooth decay.
Table 2 showing the five products with the highest calorie content from sample examined
|Description||Product Details: Type||Calories per 175ml, medium glass size (kcal)||Calories per 750ml, bottle size (kcal)|
|Hardy Stamp Shiraz Cabernet||Red wine||139.7||598.5|
|Yellow Tail Shiraz||Red wine||139.3||597.0|
|Barefoot Bubbly Pink Moscato||Sparkling||137.2||588.0|
|Casillero Del Diablo Cabernet Sauvignon||Red wine||132.3||567.0|
|Campo Viejo Rioja Tempranillo||Red wine||132.3||567.0|
Alcohol is very energy dense, with just two medium-sized glasses of the most calorific wines analysed containing more calories than a McDonald’s hamburger. What’s more, higher calorie content is linked to higher strength drinks which are the most damaging to our health. Alcohol consumption is linked to seven types of cancer, including bowel and breast cancer.
For those who drink, alcohol accounts for nearly 10% of their daily calorie intake, with around 3.4 million adults consuming an additional day’s worth of calories each week – totalling an additional two months of food each year.
None of the 30 products examined in this study displayed sugar content on their labels; information which is required for all non-alcoholic drinks. Calorie content was only displayed on 20% of the labels examined. Those wanting to know how many calories or how much sugar is in their drink, would be unable to find all the information they need on the majority of product labels.
This lack of information means that drinkers have no idea what they are consuming.
Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, Chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance UK said:
“Alcohol’s current exemption from food and drink labelling rules is absurd. Shoppers who buy milk or orange juice have sugar content and nutritional information right at their fingertips. But this information is not required when it comes to alcohol – a product not just fuelling obesity but with widespread health harms and linked to seven types of cancer.
“The Government must publish its planned consultation on alcohol labelling without further delay – which we have been waiting for since 2020. As well as calorie labelling and nutritional information, we need prominent health warnings and the UK Chief Medical Officers’ low-risk weekly drinking guidelines on labels. Studies suggest that this could help reduce alcohol harm by increasing knowledge of the health risks and prompting behaviour change.”
Alison Douglas, Chief Executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland said:
“Alcohol labelling is woefully inadequate in this country and allows the alcohol industry to decide what information it will and won’t include on its products, despite alcohol claiming the lives of 70 people a day in the UK.
“The alcohol industry has dragged their feet for long enough – unless labelling requirements are set out in law, we will continue to be kept in the dark about what is in our drinks. People want and need reliable information directly on bottles and cans, where it can usefully inform their decisions.”
Dr Richard Piper, Chief Executive of Alcohol Change UK said:
“This study, along with so many others, reveals a huge failing in alcohol labelling. We as consumers have a right to know what’s in the food and drink we consume and the effects it could have on our health. But time and again we uncover evidence of a woeful lack of even the most basic information on alcohol labelling.
“As shown by this study, the huge variation and lack of correlation between sugar and alcohol content in wines means that consumers have no way to even infer how much sugar they might be consuming. It’s totally unacceptable that so many alcohol labels continue to fail to display vital health information such as calories, ingredients or nutritional information, as well as the number of units in the bottle or a serving, and the Chief Medical Officers’ (CMOs’) low-risk drinking guidelines.
“This is totally indefensible and the Government needs to act now to place mandatory requirements on alcohol manufacturers to display accessible information based on sound evidence of what works and bring alcohol labelling in line with other food and drink products.”
Holly Gabriel, Registered Nutritionist and Nutrition Manager at Action on Sugar said:
“The huge variation in sugar and calorie content in different wines, coupled with the lack of labelling, are yet more examples of the misleading tactics used by the food and drink industry. Current policy loopholes have meant some wines can be sold with unnecessary amounts of sugar, without even having to mention it on the label. We need joined up public health policies to have the most positive impact on our health.”
Alcohol labelling requirements in the UK
In the UK, alcoholic drinks are only required to display the volume and strength (in ABV) and common allergens. Information on nutritional values (including calories and sugar content), ingredients, or health warnings is not required and is therefore largely absent from labels. This contrasts with all other food and drink products which are required to provide information on nutritional values and ingredients.
In 2020, the UK Government committed to holding a consultation on whether to include calorie information on alcohol product labelling. Information on sugar content and ingredients is not included in the plans.
Better labelling and the need for transparency is vital to allow people to make informed decisions, particularly where there is such wide variation between similar products.
In 2020, Action on Sugar analysed 21 of the most popular ready-to-drink cocktails on the market. Of the products analysed, drinks contained between 0g and 59g of sugar per single-serving container – yet this information was missing from 90% of labels on the products they examined.
What do the public think?
Not only do the public have a right to know what is in their drink, they also want to know.
A 2021 survey published by the Alcohol Health Alliance and conducted by YouGov found that 75% of people want the number of units in a product on alcohol labels, 61% want calorie information, and 53% want the amount of sugar.
 Swan et al, 2018. A definition of free sugars for the UK: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5962881/
 The Grocer (2021). The 100 most popular booze brands in the UK in 2021
 For sugar and calorie analysis, figures have been rounded to one decimal place in line with the guidance for nutritional accuracy https://www.fsai.ie/uploadedfiles/guidance_tolerances_december_2012.pdf
For teaspoons of sugar, figures have been rounded to the nearest teaspoon
 RSPH Alcohol calorie labelling https://www.rsph.org.uk/our-work/policy/drugs/alcohol-calorie-labelling-.html
 Action on Sugar (2020) https://www.actiononsugar.org/media/actiononsugar/Alcohol-Survey-Report.pdf
 YouGov Plc. The YouGov survey was conducted on behalf of Action on Smoking and Health and published by the Alcohol Health Alliance. Total sample size was 12247 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 18/02/2021 – 18/03/2021. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).
The top ten wine brands were identified through Nielsen data published in The Grocer. The data is from NielsenIQ’s ScanTrack service, which monitors weekly sales from a nationwide network of EPoS checkout scanners. Coverage is taken from grocery multiples, co-ops, multiple off-licences, multiple forecourts, convenience multiples and symbols. The data is for the moving annual total to 15 May 2021. When brands had multiple products of each category of wine, one product was selected for analysis. 30 products were sent to an independent laboratory for sugar and nutritional analysis.