How low can you go?
Do you know how many calories are in your favourite beer?
Saturday 28 August 2021
This article is from
Ones to Watch
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Do you know how many calories there are in your favourite beer? Nope? You’re not alone. Just 23 per cent of respondents to a recent YouGov poll correctly estimated that a pint of lager at 5 per cent ABV contains between 120 and 359 calories.
Our ignorance is hardly surprising. Breweries, along with other manufacturers of alcoholic beverages, are under no legal obligation to include nutrition information on their packaging. While packaged food and drink must display total calories, plus how much fat, saturates, carbohydrate, sugars, protein and salt they contain, the rules for booze are different. Alcoholic beverages need only tell you how strong they are and if there are any allergens present.
Why does this matter? Because those calories add up. Survey data from Public Health England shows that, on average, alcohol makes up 8.4 per cent of the daily calories of alcohol-drinking adults. When you consider that 63 per cent of us are overweight or obese, you begin to get a sense of the scale of the problem.
The good news is that craft breweries are beginning to tackle this issue head on. Not only are they creating beers with calorie counts comparable to those offered by longstanding multinationals like Bud Light and Miller Lite (which weigh in at 80 calories and 96 calories per bottle respectively), they’re doing so without sacrificing the depth of flavour that craft beer fans can’t do without.
For Jason Clarke, creative director of Glasgow-based Gen!us Brewing, whose Craft Lager contains 79 calories a can, “ABV was the driver”. He began with the question: “Could you make a great tasting craft beer that just had less alcohol than was currently the trend, without having to go all the way to zero?”
It wasn’t long before Jason realised that calories were going to be an important part of the story too.
“The whole business is predicated on this move to healthier drinking, and alcohol being at the heart of that. We knew that less ABV would reduce the calories, so there was always going to be a benefit there,” he says.
It was once they got the calorie testing results back on their 3 per cent ABV lager that the marketing potential of this side of things became clear. “It was at that point where we decided to put calories on the front of the can,” he recalls.
On average, alcohol makes up 8.4% of the daily calories of alcohol-drinking adults
They could have taken the calories lower – the first iteration of the lager actually came out at 72 calories a can. “But we felt there was room in that brew to squeeze some more flavour in,” says Jason. “We sacrificed a few more calories because, first and foremost, beer is still a flavour experience.”
He cites Tennent’s Light, which has just 60 calories a bottle, as an example of what they were trying to avoid. “They've really crushed the calories down and I would say you can taste that.”
The easiest way of reducing the calorie content of a beer, of course, is to take out the alcohol, which adds 56 calories per unit all by itself. That’s what Johnny Johnson did when he launched his alcohol-free beer brand Unltd. in June 2020, following a period in which he gave up booze and felt frustrated by the alcohol-free beer options available.
At around the same time he learned that his favourite tipple is naturally a good source of B vitamins, as well as being isotonic. Johnny was puzzled that people don’t really talk about the nutritional benefits of beer.
“As a person who had stopped drinking and was living a healthier lifestyle – because I was just exercising more and was more conscious about what was going on in my body – I thought that would be a massive selling point for a brand,” he says.
Having tasked a master brewer with creating “a beer that’s just really good for you”, keeping the calories low was crucial. “The more ingredients you put in generally, the fuller the beers will be and the more calorific they'll be,” Johnny explains.
“Obviously we still want the beer to taste good and not taste really thin and watery so it was playing around with quantities of ingredients.”
Johnny followed up his first offering, a 23-calorie lager, which has twice won gold at the European Beer Challenge, with a 13-calorie IPA.
“I was shocked when I got the test results back from the lab that it was only 13 [calories] because it's a great tasting IPA in its own right,” he says. He thinks it’s the lowest calorie IPA in the UK.
Jason believes we’re at a moment of change in terms of public awareness of the calories in booze. He puts this down partly to the popularity of health tracker accessories like Fitbits.
“People count their steps, they can look at their daily calorie burn. We're starting to quantify what we're consuming, and we're of course able to do that with food very easily.
“The gaping hole is now alcohol so people, not surprisingly, are turning their attention to that, saying, hang on, what am I drinking? People are very rightly a bit upset that they can't keep track of it and now they want to. Calories have to be on milk and orange juice and Coke, but not on wine or beer,” he says, incredulous. “It's plainly absurd.”
Gen!us is rare in putting the calorie content of its Craft Lager smack bang on the front of each can, along with ABV and how many units of alcohol it contains. Jason would like to see nutrition information on alcoholic beverages made mandatory, pointing to the work of groups and charities like the Alcohol Health Alliance and Alcohol Focus Scotland, which are campaigning for a change to the law.
A low calorie future?
It might not be all that much longer before Jason gets his wish. The UK government is currently consulting on a plan to bring the rules on labelling of alcoholic drinks into line with those on food and other beverages as part of its strategy to tackle obesity.
“It’s not something they could just change tomorrow,” says Dr Stuart Flint, a director of the charity Obesity UK as well as Associate Professor of the Psychology of Obesity at the University of Leeds and honorary academic for Public Health England. But he does expect new rules to be brought in, perhaps in the next couple of years or so.
Stuart welcomes such a change but warns that nutrition labelling on alcoholic beverages is no panacea. For starters, he says, the way information is currently presented on food and drinks leaves a lot to be desired.
“We need a much easier system that people can follow and can support people in terms of making healthy choices when they're in the supermarket or other kind of settings,” he says.
We need to be careful too, about overemphasising calories at the expense of a wider discussion around nutrition more generally. “What's more important is that we're getting a healthy consumption of nutrients,” Stuart says.
“You could quite easily consume 1,000 calories, be under your daily calorie allowance, but what you've consumed is really poor nutrition. I would much prefer that people are consuming double that – 2,000 calories – but healthy nutrition.”
There’s also the danger of unintended consequences, Stuart warns. “If I'm consuming less calories, maybe I have more beers...”
Calories have to be on milk and orange juice and Coke, but not on wine or beer
Stuart is therefore wary of claims by beer brands around the potential impacts of their products on health. The only way to properly figure out whether mandatory nutrition labelling on booze might be effective as a way of nudging us towards healthier choices is to conduct studies into how people behave when provided with this information.
“In an ideal world, [the government] would be delivering research now that tests out these things,” says Stuart, including how different types of people are affected and how the particular context (pubs, restaurants, supermarkets, etc) further impacts consumer choice.
All this is complicated of course by the fact that alcohol consumption is only one of a number of factors that can contribute to a person gaining weight. Plus, weight gain is by no means the only negative impact of alcohol consumption.
“Irrespective of body weight, people can reduce the amount of alcohol they're consuming for various reasons that will be beneficial for health,” Stuart explains. “People can consume some alcohol and that can be incorporated into somebody's lifestyle without it being majorly detrimental.”
Jason Clarke, for his part, is optimistic about the potential for calorie content information on beer labels.
“There are going to be a lot of people who are shocked at the amount of calories in the beers they have been drinking. Simple as that. They may continue to drink them but I think they'll drink less of them. And they will move some of the time to lighter options.”
He regards his product as “just one of those little nudges that's nudging you in the right direction. If you're choosing this beer, not that beer, every time you're having 20 or 30 calories less than the beer you were drinking.”
It’s still early days for low calorie beers in the UK and it’s likely we’ll see more craft breweries flagging up their calorie contents going forwards. If and when a law bringing alcoholic beverage labelling into line with food comes in, we could see big changes in this world.
For the moment though, it’s just exciting to see breweries experimenting – not just with styles, taste profiles and alcohol content, but with the nutritional make up of their beers too.
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