by Tyler J. Arsenault B.Sc (Nutrition)

“Sign, sign everywhere a sign!”

Nutritional labelling in Canada has an extensive list of what can and cannot be included on a label including a list of mandatory items. How many calories does this box of crackers have? How much protein is in this yogurt? How much trans fat is in these fries? Is there food colouring in these skittles? These questions will undoubtedly be answered on the product packaging because Health Canada darn-well makes sure that droves of regulators cross all of the t’s and dot all of the i’s when it comes to ensuring that all food products for sale in Canada have nutritional fact labels.

As a nutritionist, it should come to no surprise that I’m a bit of a habitual food label reader. I read labels out of interest, but even when I was a kid I would read labels out of boredom at the kitchen table. As a general practice, I instruct my clients to read labels whenever they can. I tell them what to look for, how to spot a good product, how to avoid bad ones, and everything in between. How else is a person to know what they are putting in their body without specific labelling? I read about every single thing I put in my mouth so I understand where it fits in my overall day. Did I get enough protein? Did I overconsume calories? How many carbohydrates are in this product? Would I recommend this product to someone living with diabetes? Would I recommend this product at all?

Then one day I had a beer and nearly lost my mind. It was the last straw.

ME: “Shelly (my wife), where the heck is the nutrition label on this thing?”
SHELLY: “There isn’t one?”
ME: “It’s a cylinder, it doesn’t have too many sides where it could get lost.”
SHELLY: “Did you check the box?”
ME: “Fine; I haven’t done that yet.” (goes to check box)
ME: “There’s not a darn thing on the box either. Where are the nutrition facts?!!”
ME: (LOSES MIND; waits for the internet to figure it out so I can google it.)

To this day, I routinely look at every beer, wine and bottle of spirits I come across and you know what? The government doesn’t care to share nutrition facts, nor does the government obviously treat alcohol producers with the same level of scrutiny as everyone else. Perhaps it’s because they have a monopoly/duopoly on alcohol sales and it’s preferential to keep consumers in the dark? Lack of time? Lack of transparency? Lack of accountability? Quite frankly I can’t see what other excuses would make sense so naturally I had to look into it. Why is the decision to disclose nutrition information on alcoholic products optional in Canada?

Rosé by Pdori licensed under CC BY 2.0

According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), once you have a beverage that surpasses 0.5% alcohol, it ceases to play by the rules that it previously had to follow; despite being more important now than it ever was. Alcohol has 40% more calories per gram than carbohydrates, and therefore it stands to reason that it also has more calories. So what gives? Why the sudden rule change? Frankly, I’m a little concerned about what justification there is for hiding calorie counts in light of an obesity crisis that has been hounding us for decades now.

Well, I’m happy to report that after having spent as much time as a person should reasonably spend researching such a subject, I mostly discovered nothing. In the US, alcohol is regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau instead of the FDA which might explain it more or less; it’s an entirely different regulatory body. Nonetheless I’m of the opinion that more truthful facts are always better than less when allowing a consumer to make a smart decision. I can’t help but wonder why such a discrepancy exists.

In Canada, the CFIA requires specialty drinks such as energy drinks or low carb beers to have nutrition labels, but the vast majority of alcohol requires no nutrition facts whatsoever. Given what I know about government regulation, a lack of oversight or a lack of transparency are the two obvious choices, as a lack of funding seems implausible.

But just how important would mandatory labelling of nutrition facts be? Let’s look at the data.

A standard 175ml glass of wine has 160 Calories, a single pint of cider has 210 Calories, a single standard beer has 153 calories and a single shot of vodka has 96 Calories. That’s in the ballpark of anywhere from a crumpet to a doughnut to a slice of pizza depending on your drink of choice….and that’s if you drink one! For many of my clients, a single drink per day represents nearly 10% of their calorie intake, which if unaccounted for could translate into enough calories to store a single pound of body fat every 16 days, or 22 pounds every year. And that’s just with ONE drink per day on average. This is the difference between predictable weight loss and weight loss sabotage; and yet Canadian regulators still don’t seem to care. Healthy weights are one of the biggest predictors of disease reduction and yet here we are without the information to achieve them. Our health care dollars in Ontario are already tapped to the max, so mandatory labelling measures would seem like a rather low-hanging-fruit approach to tackling obesity.

I am happy to admit however that I care, and to those of you who aren’t my clients but would still like to have a quick rule of thumb to help you determine how many calories are in your simplest alcoholic drinks:

12 ounce beer = 150 calories

5 ounce glass of wine = 125 calories

1.5 ounces of 80 proof spirits = 100 calories

2.25 ounce martini = 125 calories

4 ounce margarita = 170 calories Copy H

9 ounce pina colada = 500 calories !!!!

To look at it another way, a couple of standard drinks would take nearly 30 minutes of cardio to eliminate, whereas a single pina colada could take up to an hour! Don’t get me wrong, I love my wine and I like the odd beer, but I have to account for those calories as part of a sensible healthy lifestyle. It’s just unfortunate that Google had to come to my rescue when our taxpayer funded government could not. Drink responsibly!