Labelling: what’s in a bottle of wine?

Published: 12 March, 2020 | Category: Alcohol

Photo: Andres Chaparro,

In front of me I have a bottle of Australia McGuigan Estate Merlot. Like most people I enjoy a glass of wine and I often glance at the label to read a bit of background information about the wine. But since becoming a campaigner against cancer I increasingly look more closely at the health information given on the label.

Let’s decipher the label. The first piece of information of note is “13% vol”. I think many people might know that this relates to the alcohol content, but how many know its relevance? Is 13% a high content or a low content of alcohol? With some further investigation I suspect it will show that this wine is of medium strength — 5.5% would be a wine with low alcohol, 17% would be high — but for the many who don’t have a specialist interest in wine labels, how would they know?

Reading on, in capital letters we are told that it is a wine of Australia and a smaller comment that it contains sulphites. Sulphites, or sulphur dioxide are a legal preservative to stop wine oxidising or being contaminated. They can have unpleasant side effects so they are mentioned on the label. As we shall see, this is one of the few pieces of health information that are added by law. There is also another piece of mandatory information, the quantity of wine that the bottle contains, in this case expressed as 75cle.

Then in a little box that measures 2.5cm by 1.5cm on the back of the bottle is some crucial health information pertaining to this bottle. It shows the bottle of wine has 9.8 units (of alcohol) and an image of a 125ml glass showing 1.6 units. There is also a comment “UK Chief Medical Officers recommend adults do not regularly exceed 3-4 units (men) and 2-3units a day (women)”. The Australians obvious think there are several Chief Medical Officers in the UK. Finally, there is what I think is a tiny ‘prohibited’ sign with a pregnant women on it. It is all in very, very small font and frankly, pretty well illegible.

Bizarrely, because the labelling on non-alcoholic drinks are more closely regulated, generally, alcohol free wines and beers have considerably more health information on their labels than alcoholic beverages. Additionally, alcohol has considerably lower levels of health information than most foodstuffs, in spite of the fact that alcohol in its purist form is basically a form of poison. How did we reach this point?

Back in 2007, the UK Department of Health reached a wide voluntary agreement with the alcohol industry to include specified unit and health information on alcohol labels. This expectation was then absorbed into the Public Health Responsibility Deal which was designed to ensure that alcoholic products on the shelf would have responsible health information. In practice, that has never happened – the alcohol companies did as little as possible, and then in a font so small that much of the information is illegible. Very little further action has been taken since then, resulting in a situation where most bottles of alcohol will contain less health information than a piece of cheese or a packet of biscuits.

Any form of food labelling is highly complex and is based on legislation that was put in place by the European Union from 2014. It key purpose was to allow consumers to make informed choices and make safe use of food and free movement of food. Typically it includes information on allergens, use by dates, nutritional declarations, ingredients, storage, country of origin, energy (calories) and reference intakes. Font size is also specified.

However, the labelling of alcohol is entirely another matter. The relevant regulations are the European Union regulations 1308/2013, 1169/2011 and 607/2009. They stipulate the information to be put on alcoholic labels: the mandatory information is Alcohol by Volume (ABV, alcoholic strength), provenance, bottler, nominal volume expression eg 75cl, and lot number. Additionally, common allergens, mainly sulphites, are mandatory in specific wine products. There is also provision for minor optional items. The rest of any information remains self regulated mainly by the Portman Group, also known as Drinkaware, an industry funded organisation. Increasingly health information is delivered away from the alcohol by way of a website.

Typically alcoholic strength will not be set in a reference indicator. However, under the voluntary agreement with the drinks industry there will often be information on unit content per product/per serve and, occasionally the Chief Medical Officer’s stipulation not to drink more than 14 units a week. Occasionally there may be calorie content, but only because the supermarkets demanded this information.

Other information that should and could be shown includes information on the dangers of binge drinking; specific health information such as the damage that drinking can do to your liver; nutritional information and mandatory energy ie calorie content; ingredients; drink driving warnings; age restrictions; and use by dates.

This may seem a lot, but it is little more than the information that can be found on most foodstuffs which are considerably less harmful than alcohol. Most foodstuffs have to include traffic light diagrams and background information including, in some cases copious ingredients, which take up a large percentage of the packaging, yet space is found.

Improved labelling will not automatically reduce the damage that alcohol causes. But it is a start on the long haul to reduce the incidence of liver, bowel, and breast cancers that are caused by misuse of alcohol. The start of any public health campaign is education and awareness, a hopeless task if information is not available.