Alcohol Labeling: Coming to a Liquor Store Near You

Alcoholic beverages may soon have nutrition labels on food packaging -- but they’re optional.

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People tend to overlook 'liquid calories,' particularly those that come from alcoholic beverages – because if you don't chew, it seems like it doesn't count. Sadly, that's not the case.

It may seem obvious that a frozen Margarita served in a glass the size of a small swimming pool could be excessive, but did you know that a nice, clear, colorless gin and tonic packs over 250 calories? And that number could be even higher, depending on who's pouring and how much is being poured.

Those "invisible" liquid calories may carry more weight in the near future, because your favorite can of beer or bottle of wine or spirits might be getting a makeover.

A new law recently passed allows the inclusion of voluntary "Serving Facts" labels on wine, spirit and malt beverage bottles. Are you wondering why there isn't already a nutrition label on alcoholic beverages? Unlike traditional food and beverage labels, strictly regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, alcohol labeling jurisdiction falls in a gray area. On May 28, the Treasury Department approved the inclusion of serving size, servings per container, calories, carbohydrates, protein and fat per serving on a traditional "Serving Facts" label, an expansion from 2004's authorized "statement of average analysis." The Alcohol and Tobacco Trade and Tax Bureau further validated this decision, mandating truthful labeling that avoids misleading consumers.

[Read: How to Keep Alcohol Calories in Check.]

With so much of the government's emphasis on health and nutrition in the past couple of decades, it's curious why this voluntary labeling law has taken so long to materialize. Here's what's been happening:

In 1988, Congress passed the Alcoholic Beverage Labeling Act, which required alcohol bottles to include a government warning reminding Americans of the health hazards of consuming alcohol. In 2003, the National Consumers League proposed an "Alcohol Facts" label to make alcohol labeling more consistent among companies. Since no formal laws were passed, companies have continued to lobby for regulations regarding expansive nutrition labels in the form of a formal "Serving Facts" panel. In 2007, TTB proposed a rule to include caloric and nutrient information on labels, but no final regulation was ever promoted. In 2013, TTB finally expanded on 2004's permissible "statement of average analysis," to incorporate the nutritional information stated above.

[Read: How to Have Fun Without Overdoing It.]

So now that you have the background on your bottle of booze, let's get real: Most drinks will be purchased in a dark bar where you won't even get the chance to see, let alone read, what's on the label. Moreover, many of us have what I call "alcohol allegiance" – no matter what the bottle says, we will buy the type of spirit we know and love. These new labels can come in handy, however, when it comes to portion distortion. When trying to help patients become more aware of the amount of alcohol they're consuming, I suggest they first pour their liquor into a shot glass. For most people, that 1 and 1/2 ounce jigger doesn't compare to the amount that usually flows into an afternoon cocktail.

So if the spirit moves you, here's what you need to know:

• Including a "Serving Facts" label is voluntary for spirit, wine and malt beverage companies. Not every bottle will take part in this overhaul.

• Don't be confused – a nutrition label is not a stamp of nutrition approval! Labels, however, can lead to greater awareness whether at the liquor store or at home.

[Read: Diets That Let You Drink Alcohol.]

• Clear information about appropriate serving size and nutrition statistics will be provided, but don't forget to consider what else goes in that glass. Optional nutritional labels will not take into account high-calorie mixers you might be blending. Be an educated drinker; those add-ins can add up.

• Beware of allergens! Alcohol labeling laws still allow major leeway in what's required. The disclosure of major allergens is not required for alcohol labels, as it is for other foods and beverages. Currently, only the disclosure of FD&C Yellow No. 5, saccharin, sulfites, aspartame (in malt beverages only) and color additives (such as cochineal extract and carmine) are required. Optional labeling guidelines for major allergens – such as tree nuts, peanuts, shellfish, milk, eggs, gluten and soy – are available, but not mandatory. This is troublesome for the estimated 4 percent of Americans with food allergies. Uneducated or new drinkers can easily be mistaken.

If alcohol labels sound confusing to you, the best way to read that label clearly is by making yourself the designated driver and skipping the drink; your friends and body will thank you.

Will new nutrition labels on bottles and cans change your drinking habits? Please share your thoughts with us below.

[Read: Cheers for Beer ... Shampoo, That Is.]

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, CDN, has been owner of BTD Nutrition Consultants, LLC, for more than three decades and she is the author of Read It Before You Eat It. As a renowned motivational speaker, author, media personality, and award-winning dietitian, Taub-Dix has found a way to communicate how to make sense of science. Her website is BetterThanDieting.com.