This is a guest post by Carol Harvey, Director of food/nutrition labeling and product development at Palate Works.
Now that “lite” beers are everywhere, are “skinny” cocktails the next battle-the-bulge-with-booze trend? And what are the labeling regulations, if any, for these brazenly boastful beverages making calorie claims?
The TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, formerly ATF) regulates alcohol beverages, and whenever a nutrient claim (about calories, carbs, etc.) is made on a product or in its marketing a “statement of average analysis” (data for calories, carbohydrate, protein and fat) is required.
“Low-calorie,” while not specifically defined by TTB (although calorie claims for alcoholic beverages were banned starting as early as 1955), is defined by FDA as 40 calories or fewer per serving (a defined/regulated portion, not something chosen by manufacturers).
Both products shown here (bottled margaritas) do provide calorie info. However, the serving size used is only appropriate for straight alcohol (1.5 fl oz = a jigger), rather than a mixed drink, which contains alcohol diluted with water, sugar, etc.
Cocktails have way fewer calories than do undiluted tequila, vodka, etc., and any margarita with enough water added can have the same caloric content as these “skinny” concoctions in a full serving, even with added sweeteners. Note that “organic agave” is potentially worse for your liver due to the higher fructose content vs. cane sugar.
The correct serving size for a cocktail is whatever amount contains 1.5 fl oz (42.5 g) of the booze component. Here’s the math for the Laughing Glass margarita: Assuming a typical 80-proof tequila (40% alcohol), there is 40g of alcohol per 100g of liquid. In a 42.5g serving there are 17 grams of alcohol.
We have 17 gram of alcohol in a cocktail with a stated 12% alcohol content, so the amount of beverage with 40% alcohol content would be 142 grams (solve for x: 12/100 = 17/x). translating to ounces, 142 grams is about 5 fl oz of margarita.
The label on the margarita says 41 calories per 1.5 fl. oz. But since the actual serving is 5 fl. oz. (solve for x: 41 cal/1.5 fl. oz = x cal/5 fl. oz ), you will be sipping 137 calories. A proper label would round it to 140 calories per serving.
In 2004, TTB ruled that “representations that imply that alcohol beverages may be a healthy part of a weight maintenance or weight loss plan, or that consumers may drink more of such beverages because of their low calorie or carbohydrate content, mislead consumers by presenting incomplete information about the health effects and nutritional content of alcohol beverages.” Misleading the consumer is not permitted in food/beverage labeling.
Here’s how you are being cheated by these companies:
- using incorrect serving size (which makes calories look lower than they are),
- claiming “low-calorie” when they definitely are not, and
- implying that these drinks will somehow be good for weight control (even though they are not much lower in calories than a typical, similar mixed drink).
And they aren’t exactly hiding their tipsy claims. The press release for Laughing Glass Cocktails, in particular, was obviously tasked with communicating the “low-calorie” description, and that is how the San Francisco Chronicle and other media (parroting the release without researching the regulations or using common-sense math) portrayed one of the products a few months ago.
Ross Valley “Moms are the Ones Laughing Now” (and drinking their way to the bank without first doing their homework). Then there are the website photos of teenage-looking “adults” having a ball drinking the cocktails, while the company promotes the drink as a more sophisticated, “classic margarita that appeals to savvy consumers.”
What to do at a party
To make a lower-calorie cocktail, here’s the skinny: water it down (add fresh juices, herbs, etc. for better flavor) and/or drink less. No mixed drink containing alcohol (aka distilled spirits) can be low in calories, because the alcohol component alone (1.5 fl oz) will provide at least 2x the 40-calorie maximum for claiming “low-calorie.”
Carol Harvey has been a nutrition labeling and product development consultant for over 15 years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.