Manitoba

Alcoholic beverages need labels with calorie counts, Manitoba group says

Currently, nutritional information like calorie counts isn't required on alcohol labels in Canada — but the Brandon-based Community Health and Housing Association hopes to change that.

Community Health and Housing Association hopes to see information added to alcoholic beverage containers

Alcoholic beverage containers aren't required to contain calorie counts or health information in Canada. A group in Manitoba wants to change that. (CBC)

A non-profit organization in Brandon, Man., is taking aim at the way alcohol is marketed — and says information such as calorie counts and suggested serving sizes should included on alcohol packaging.

Currently, that information isn't required on alcohol labels in Canada — but the Brandon-based Community Health and Housing Association hopes to change that.

"People need to know how much calories they are consuming so they can make informed decisions," said Glen Kruck, the former executive director of the association, who now leads several special projects the organization has undertaken.

Kruck said adding such information to cans and bottles wouldn't cost governments — federal or provincial — any money, with the cost of changing labels falling on liquor companies themselves. 

Alcohol abuse is something the Brandon health and housing association sees frequently, Kruck said.

Alcohol is "widely spread and accepted in society," he notes, and alcoholism is "such a pervasive addiction."

"And withdrawal from alcohol can be life-threatening," he said.

Adding nutritional information, such as calorie counts, could help to reduce obesity and addiction issues, said Kruck.

A six-ounce (roughly 175 millilitre) glass of wine, for example, could have around 140 calories — roughly the same calorie count as an entire 12-ounce (355 millilitre) can of pop. Two ounces of hard liquor have roughly the same number of calories.

"Not only is it horrible for your health, it gets you intoxicated quickly," he said.

"There is a great incentive for alcohol companies to not list the calories on it, because the calories are … incredibly intense in these products." 

A nutrition facts label is shown on a box of cookies. That sort of labelling 'exists on virtually all food and beverages in Canada,' says researcher Adam Sherk, but 'alcoholic beverages are specifically exempt.' (Kelly Crowe/CBC)

He said while some alcohol cans and bottles do contain calorie counts for marketing purposes, he feels making the information more readily available would help all Canadians. 

"It's important for people to understand that a can of pop and a can of beer basically has the same calories — but it's listed on the can of pop but it's not listed on the can of beer," he said. 

He thinks adding the labelling could lead to changes.

"You look at even pop right now — because of the calories [being listed] and the whole concept in regards to obesity, some companies have come out with zero [calorie beverages]."

Alcohol given 'free pass': researcher 

Adam Sherk, a post-doctoral fellow at the Canadian Institute for Substance Research at the University of Victoria, said enhanced labelling on alcoholic beverage containers, similar to the standard black-and-white nutrition labelling found on other products, makes sense.

That labelling "exists on virtually all food and beverages in Canada," he said, but "alcoholic beverages are specifically exempt."

Sherk led a study, published in 2019, that found the average Canadian alcohol drinker gets more than 10 per cent of their daily calories from booze.

But Sherk said it's not just about calorie counts, noting the difference in restrictions on tobacco products — which must carry labels with health warnings, for example — versus those on alcohol.

"We've just hammered cigarettes so hard, and alcohol's got … basically a free pass," he said. "They're both among the top four behavioural risk factors."

Strengthening label requirements

Sherk feels alcohol should have labelling similar to what's found on tobacco products.

"I would first do health warnings, particularly around … alcohol and cancer [and] alcohol and heart disease," he said, adding calorie counts would be important to add. 

"It's kind of in this broader context of strengthening our alcohol labelling in Canada and in the provinces."

Kruck said his group has already met with Manitoba Health Minister Audrey Gordon with a proposal and hopes to meet with the federal government soon. 

In a statement, a spokesperson for Gordon said the request from the health and housing association is better addressed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Kruck said, however, there has been some fairly receptive initial reaction to the idea of additional labelling on alcoholic beverages, but it's still unclear when, or if, it could become a reality.

He hopes the idea takes off and eventually becomes a requirement across Canada. 

"An idea has to start somewhere," he said. 

Taking aim at how alcohol is marketed

3 months ago
Duration 2:14
Ever wonder why a can of beer doesn't have a calorie count? What about a bottle of wine? A can of pop has it. Now a Brandon non-profit is taking aim at how alcohol is marketed. 2:14

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Riley Laychuk is CBC's reporter based in Brandon, covering rural Manitoba. Share your story ideas, tips and feedback: riley.laychuk@cbc.ca.

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