by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Alcohol

Dec 10 2013

Yes, one more post on the meaning of “natural”

At a talk I gave for CQ Roll Call in Washington, DC last week, an audience member asked about the definition of “natural.”  I thought I had said everything there was to say about it (see post from August).  Wrong.

Another member of the audience sent me the definition of “natural” produced by, of all things, the  Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

Three federal agencies deal with “natural.”

The FDA

In answer to the question, “What is the meaning of ‘natural’ on the label of food?,” the FDA says:

From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.

The USDA

The USDA discusses “natural” in the context of organic foods, in order to distinguish “natural” from organic:

Natural. As required by USDA, meat, poultry, and egg products labeled as “natural” must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. However, the natural label does not include any standards regarding farm practices and only applies to processing of meat and egg products. There are no standards or regulations for the labeling of natural food products if they do not contain meat or eggs.

The ATF

This agency is in charge of regulating alcoholic beverages, largely for tax-collection purposes.  Its “ATF Ruling 85-4″ does not actually define the term “natural,” but instead says when ATF takes no exception to its use.

(1) Any grape fruit, citrus or agricultural wine may be designated “natural” if it is made without added alcohol or brandy…No other type of wine may be designated as “natural.”

(2) A distilled spirit may be designated as “natural” if is solely the result of distillation, with or without mingling of the same class and type of spirits or simple filtration which does not alter the class or type of the product.

(3) A malt beverage may be designated “natural” if it is made without adjuncts (additives) other than those additives which do not remain in the finished product, either by precipitating out or by combining with other components of the product and the resulting compound precipitates or is filtered out.

I am not making this up.

CSPI thinks it’s time to phase out the use of “natural.”  OK by me.

Addition: Michele Simon, who blogs at Eat, Drink, Politics, writes (she’s not making this up either):

In fact, ATF is how housed within the Department of Justice.

Historically, ATF had all jurisdiction over alcohol (and was within Treasury), which is where that rule must have come from.

ATF still maintains jurisdiction over criminal activity, but now, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau oversees labeling. That’s housed within Treasury.

This explains the split in 2002 (click here).

Clear as mud? So maybe you can add a fourth agency to your list!

Jul 6 2012

A food politics thought for the weekend: treatment vs. prevention

I’ve been at meetings in London and Geneva on non-communicable (what we call chronic) diseases and how to prevent them. 

On the way to Europe, I did some catching up on reading past issues of The Lancet and ran across this letter from Sally Casswell of the School of Public Health at Massey University in Auckland. 

Professor Casswell was responding to an article arguing that a major priority in chronic disease prevention should be to strengthen the capacity of countries to deliver primary care services.

Yes, professor Casswell writes, primary care is important.  But it is even more important to focus prevention efforts on the environmental factors that influence the behavior of individuals and cause them to need primary care services in the first place.

Do we really want to continue to live in a world where the oversupply and marketing of tobacco, alcohol, unhealthy processed foods, and soft drinks is tolerated simply to allow continuing profits for the shareholders of the transnational corporations producing and distributing them, while the taxpayer funds the health services and pharmaceutical response to the ensuing disease and injury?

This is a refreshing way to look at this problem, and one well worth pondering.

Apr 3 2012

Food politics in action: the White House vs. the FDA

Today’s New York Times has a long investigative piece on White House interference with FDA decision-making.

The FDA is supposed to make regulatory decisions on the basis of science. When President Obama came into office, he pledged to make decisions based on science and facts rather than ideology:

The truth is that promoting science isn’t just about providing resources—it’s about protecting free and open inquiry…It’s about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology. It’s about listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it’s inconvenient—especially when it’s inconvenient.

The Times article documents instances in which the administration failed to keep that pledge.  Most of the instances concerned FDA-regulated drugs and devices, but one involves calorie labeling on restaurant menus.

Recall that when President Obama signed the health care reform act in 2010, he signed menu labeling into law.  This required chain restaurants and vending machines to post calorie labels.

The F.D.A.’s first draft of the guidelines — approved by the Department of Health and Human Services and the White House — included rules for movie theaters, lunch wagons, trains and airlines.

But when the FDA released its proposed regulations a year ago, these venues were exempted.

As I said at the time, “Uh oh. Food is sold everywhere these days as anyone who has been to a drug store lately can attest.”

According to the Times’ account, a White House health adviser insisted on these exemptions out of fear that Fox News might view labels on movie popcorn

as an especially silly example of the government intrusions that conservatives often mocked as the nanny state… This was the era of Glenn Beck, and the White House was terrified that Beck would get up and say this is all part of the nanny state.

That’s bad enough but I noticed other key omissions in the FDA’s proposed rules.  For one thing, they allow impossibly large ranges such as the 200-to-800 calories that Chipotle posts, for example.

For another, they say nothing about alcoholic beverages.  As I explain in Why Calories Count, alcohol calories count and alcohol is almost as calorie as fat (7 per gram).  The FDA is ducking this ostensibly because it does not have jurisdiction over alcohol (the Treasury Department does).

The FDA needs to take a good hard look at these issues.

It has not yet propose final rules.  Maybe the Times’ article will give the FDA some breathing room and allow it to do the right thing this time.

And the FDA needs to get the rules out fast.  If the Supreme Court strikes down health care reform, will that mean the end of menu labeling as well?

Jun 28 2011

Health claims on alcoholic beverages, exposed!

The California-based Marin Institute, “the alcohol industry watchdog,” has issued an enlightening new report: Questionable Health Claims by Alcohol Companies: From Protein Vodka to Weight-Loss Beer.

According to the Institute’s press release, “Major alcohol companies are exploiting ineffective or non-existent regulatory oversight with deceptive marketing and potentially dangerous products.

Some examples described in the report:

  • Devotion Vodka (“Infused with Casein”)
  • Fragoli strawberry liqueur (promoted with antioxidants)
  • Absolut, Skyy, and Finlandia vodkas (“infused with natural flavors”)
  • Michelob Ultra, and MGD 64 beer (promoted as fitness and weight-loss aids)

Or how about vodka advertised as “no sugar, gluten free, low calorie?”  The Marin Institute points out that terms like these are “promoted as logical compliments to a healthy, fitness-oriented lifestyle, without a hint of irony.”

Irony?  Check the illustrations!

As the report concludes, such marketing messages when applied to alcoholic beverages are “legally tenuous, morally unsound, and potentially dangerous.”

But don’t blame the FDA for this one.  Alcoholic beverages are regulated by the Treasury Department because they are a lucrative source of revenue.  Health claims sell products.

Treasury benefits more when companies sell more.  This sounds to me like a clear conflict of interest.  You?

 

 

May 24 2011

Do you want calories listed for alcoholic drinks? Tell FDA by July 5

In April, the FDA released proposed rules for listing calories on menu labels (see previous post).  One surprising omission was an exemption for alcoholic beverages.  The surprise was that FDA had included alcoholic beverages in earlier versions.

The FDA’s reason for omitting alcohol is that these drinks are regulated by the Treasury Department, which proposed rules for calories on the labels of such drinks.  Yes it did, but that was at least four years ago and Treasury has done nothing since.  And Treasury has never said a word about menu boards.

Jurisdiction cannot be the real reason.  FDA does not regulate meat and poultry (USDA does) but its proposed regulations cover those foods.

If you think the FDA should require restaurants to display calories for alcoholic beverages, now is the time to say so.

I think consumers’ right to know is a sufficient reason for demanding calorie labeling on alcoholic beverages, but if you want more, the Marin Institute  lists useful talking points.

  • Alcoholic beverages contain calories and few nutrients.
  • It is difficult for drinkers to calculate the number of calories contained in a specific alcoholic beverage on their own.
  • Congress did not explicitly exclude alcoholic beverages from food labeling requirements.
  • The FDA has jurisdiction over the regulation of alcoholic beverages for health purposes.
  • The TTB [Treasury Department agency] continually fails to act regarding the labeling of alcoholic beverages.
  • Exempting small alcohol producers can remove burden of obtaining nutritional information.

If you are convinced by these arguments, or have others of your own, be sure to share them with FDA.  Do it right away.  The deadline is July 5.

Nov 17 2010

FDA and FTC get tough on caffeine-alcohol drinks!

The FDA held two conference calls today to announce action on caffeine-alcohol beverages. It is sending warning letters to four companies that make this collection of caffeinated alcoholic beverages:

  • Core High Gravity HG Green
  • Core High Gravity HG Orange
  • Four Loko
  • Joose
  • Lemon Lime Core Spiked
  • Moonshot  (This product is labeled as “premium beer with caffeine”)
  • Max

The FDA says:

The manufacturers of these products have failed to show that the direct addition of caffeine to their malt beverages is “generally recognized as safe” by qualified experts.  Rather, there is evidence that the combinations of caffeine and alcohol in these products pose a public health concern….The agency has given the firms 15 days to respond to the warning letters and then may proceed to court to stop their sale. In addition, other alcoholic beverages containing added caffeine may be subject to agency action in the future if scientific data indicate that the use of caffeine in those products does not meet safety standards.

The FTC issued similar warnings to the same four companies because “marketing of such beverages may constitute an unfair or deceptive practice that violates the FTC Act.  Companies receiving letters include: United Brands Co (Joose and Max), Phusion Products (Four Loko and Four Maxed), Charge Beverages Corporation (Core High Gravity, Core Spiked, and El Jefe), and New Century Brewing Company (Moonshot).

What this is about:

Ever ahead of the game, the New York Times announced yesterday that the FDA would soon be doing something about the caffeinated alcohol beverages that have caused so much trouble on college campuses recently (see previous post on this).

Today, Four Loko says it will voluntarily take the caffeine out of Four Loko.

Why?  In a statement, Phusion Projects, the maker of Four Loko explains:

We are taking this step after trying – unsuccessfully – to navigate a difficult and politically-charged regulatory environment at both the state and federal levels….We have repeatedly contended — and still believe, as do many people throughout the country — that the combination of alcohol and caffeine is safe…If it were unsafe, popular drinks like rum and colas or Irish coffees that have been consumed safely and responsibly for years would face the same scrutiny that our products have recently faced….By taking this action today, we are again demonstrating leadership, cooperation and responsible corporate citizenship.

Yeah, right.  Irish coffees are hardly considered party drinks.

Phusion Projects is acting because it is being forced to.   FoodSafetyNews has kept score, based on data collected by the Marin Institute, which has been on top of this issue for years (thanks to Michele Simon and others).

So far, Oklahoma, Michigan, Utah, and Washington have banned drinks that combine caffeine with alcohol.  New York’s largest beer distributors have stopped selling the drinks. And several colleges have banned the drinks on campuses.

And where are the regulatory agencies in all this?  Alcohol beverages are not regulated by the FDA.  They are regulated by theTobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) of the Treasury department.  From the government’s standpoint, alcohol is about tax revenues, not health.  As Phusion Projects explains, all this is TTB’s fault:

If our products were unsafe, we would not have expected the federal agency responsible for approving alcoholic beverage formulas – the Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) – to have approved them.   Yet, all of our product formulas and packaging were reviewed and approved by the TTB before being offered to consumers.

Why is the FDA involved in this at all?  Because it regulates food additives—like caffeine and the other supplements put into energy drinks.

If this incident illustrates anything, it’s that alcohol beverages require the same kind of scrutiny given to any other food product and their regulation needs to move to an agency that cares about their effects on health.

Additions, November 18: The California Department of Health Services says caffeine-alcohol beverages can no longer be sold in the state.  And TTB has come out with its own warnings.

Addition, November 23: I’ve been sent the Saturday Night Live skit on Four Loko, and particularly appreciate the comment on portion size—120 servings per can!

Nov 6 2010

Nutrition labeling of wine, beer, and spirits: a regulatory morass

My monthly (first Sunday) San Francisco Chronicle column deals with the quite astonishingly complex and consumer unfriendly rules for labeling alcohol beverages, in answer to this question:

Q: I like to read nutritional information on the foods and beverages I consume. Why is there no such information on alcoholic beverages?

A: You want to know the alcohol, calories and ingredients in your wine, beer and liquor? Good luck.

Some alcohol drinks label some of this, but so inconsistently that it’s hard to make sense of it. The alcohol beverage industry prefers that you not think about what’s in their products. And Congress does not want alcohol marketed as nutritious.

Remember Prohibition? This was the era from 1920 to 1933 when alcohol could not be made, transported or sold in America. When it ended, Congress passed the Alcohol Administration Act of 1935, still in force. Recognizing the tax potential of alcohol beverages, Congress assigned their regulation to the Treasury Department. Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) sets rules for alcohol labels.

Absurd as it may seem, the labeling rules differ for wine, beer and distilled spirits. Substances to which people might be sensitive, such as sulfites and yellow No. 5, must be labeled, but TTB considers “ingredients” only to mean carbohydrate, protein and fat. If a label states calories, it must also state those ingredients, even though wine and hard liquor hardly have any (beer has some carbohydrate).

Listing other ingredients is voluntary and some winemakers are placing ingredient lists on labels – mostly grapes, but sometimes oak products.

Concentrate hard on what comes next. Labels of distilled spirits must state percent alcohol. They may list calories (but usually don’t). Wine label rules depend on percent alcohol. Wines containing 14 percent alcohol or more must display alcohol content; they may list calories (but don’t).

Wines from 7 to 14 percent must list alcohol and may list calories, unless they are labeled “light” or “table,” in which case they do not have to list either.

And get this: Wines with less than 7 percent alcohol are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, not TTB. They must display Nutrition Facts labels with calories, nutrients and actual ingredients. They may disclose percent alcohol, and some do.

The 1935 act prohibited beer labels from disclosing alcohol content, lest manufacturers compete to sell “stronger” products, but the ban was successfully challenged in court.

Now beer labels may state percent alcohol, and when it helps sales, they do. The “energy-booster” beers associated with college drinking freely display alcohol content. Their labels also boast of caffeine, ginseng and taurine, ingredients regulated by the FDA as food additives.

Calories on beer labels are equally inconsistent. Regular beer may state calories. Light beer must do so.

I’m not done yet. If a beer is made from a grain other than malted barley, it is FDA-regulated. It must display Nutrition Facts; it may display alcohol.

Strangest of all, regulations differ from one state to another and state rules sometimes can supersede those of TTB, but not those of FDA.

Let’s credit the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest with trying to fix this absurd, consumer-unfriendly situation. For decades, CSPI has petitioned Treasury to require disclosure of alcohol, calories and contents on alcohol labels.

In the early 2000s, CSPI and a coalition of 70 consumer and health groups petitioned TTB to require Alcohol Facts labels listing those and other relevant details. The alcohol industry countered with a proposal for voluntary labeling. At the height of the low-carbohydrate diet craze, makers of distilled spirits were eager to market them as “no-carb.”

In 2004, TTB issued guidance to industry on how to voluntarily label products with a Serving Facts panel. In 2007, in response to public comment, TTB finally proposed mandatory labeling rules for alcohol beverages. These called for a Serving Facts panel listing alcohol, calories, carbohydrate, protein and fat in all beverages under TTB jurisdiction.

But lest these requirements appear too onerous, TTB agreed to allow companies to leave percent alcohol off the Serving Facts panel, as long as it appeared someplace else on the label. In response, CSPI insisted that TTB delete the unnecessary fat and protein listings, include alcohol on the panel and list all actual ingredients, along with a warning statement about excess alcohol consumption.

To date, TTB has neither responded to CSPI nor issued final rules. Its proposals apparently got caught in election cycles and remain in limbo. CSPI, in cutting budgets, closed its alcohol policy center last year.

What to do? If you want to know calories, you mostly have to guess. Standard servings of wine (5 ounces), regular beer (12 ounces) and spirits (1.5 ounces) each provide about 100 alcohol calories. Carbohydrates add 20 or more to wine, and 50 or so to beer. Yes, those calories count, and more and larger drinks have more calories.

For unlabeled alcohol, sweeteners and other food additives, you just have to hope for the best. Or you can write your congressional representatives to get TTB moving on alcohol labeling.

This article appeared on page K – 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Nov 3 2010

“Energy” drinks: caffeine + alcohol = trouble

I’ve been doing some writing about alcohol labeling lately and was surprised to see a Joose flavored malt beverage (translation: beer) in a local Duane-Reade drug store.  Its label said it contained caffeine, taurine, and ginseng, ingredients not usually found  in beer.

But what really surprised me was the alcohol content–9.9%–displayed in three places on the label.

This is twice the alcohol content of many beers.  Alcohol beverages are regulated by the Treasury Department which does not require alcohol contents to be listed on beer labels.  So this was a voluntary disclosure that could have only one purpose: marketing the higher alcohol content.

So I have been following the current furor about the effects of the Four Loko brand on the health and welfare of college drinkers.  Four Loko, in case you missed it, has sent students at several colleges to emergency rooms with extreme alcohol toxicity.

The New York Times quoted Peter Mercer, President of Ramapo College in New Jersey, one of the places where six students drank themselves into a stupor.  One of the students had a blood alcohol level of .40, which is twice the concentration needed to stupify.  Ramapo has now banned the beverage from campus.

I do not see any socially redeeming purpose being served by these beverages….At the end of the day, they’re aimed at a young, inexperienced market for the purpose of enabling them to become rapidly intoxicated.

The Times’ Frank Bruni did a tasting experiment:

And what I quickly came to see was that if you set out to engineer a booze delivery system that is as cloying, deceptive and divorced from the usual smells, tastes and presentation of alcohol as possible, you’d be hard pressed to come up with something more impressive than Four Loko.  It’s a malt liquor in confectionary drag.

Bruni’s conclusion:

Four Loko is all stealth: spoonfuls of sugar to help the medicines go down. Until I felt a slight flush in my cheeks and subtle tingling on my scalp, I could have convinced myself that I was drinking candy. It wasn’t to my liking, but then neither are jelly beans. Spike a satchel of those with both an intoxicant and a stimulant, and Four Loko might have some fierce new competition.

None of this is news, really.  The Marin Institute, which calls itself the “Alcohol Industry Watchdog,” has been writing about the dangers of caffeinated alcohol beverages to young drinkers since the products were first released.

In its report, “Alcohol, energy drinks, and youth: a dangerous mix,” the Institute summarizes the hazards:

  • The products are designed to look like non-alcoholic versions.
  • Sometimes the alcoholic and non-alcoholic versions are indistinguishable except for the Nutrition Facts label on the non-alcoholic varieties.
  • The effects of alcohol are masked by the sugar and caffeine.
  • They are marketed to make kids drunk.

And now comes an investigative report that Four Loko did a major spin on its social media to remove all traces of evidence that the company, Phusion Products, was promoting it as a party drink.  My favorite part of this report is a conversation between the reporter and Chris Hunter, a lawyer for Four Loko.

When Hunter objected to me calling Four Loko an energy drink, I pointed out that I had read the language directly from Phusion Projects’ website. Silence followed. I read him parts of the phrasing from the now-changed company profile (“three college friends from The Ohio State University noticed the growing popularity of mixing alcoholic and energy drinks, like Red Bull and vodka, and decided to create a beverage company of their own”).

“Okay, no worries,” he answered.

I then pointed out that the language is now different on the page.

“No worries,” he said again.

So it’s not an energy drink?

“No, this is a caffeinated alcoholic beverage.”

As for caffeine, its effects when combined with alcohol are considered serious enough to merit creation of a new journal, the Journal of Caffeine Research: The International Multidisciplinary Journal of Caffeine Science. The journal will be devoting much attention to the role of caffeine in alcohol energy drinks.

Thanks to Michele Simon of the Marin Institute for alerting me to much of this.

Addition: Michele points to Phusion’s defensive posting explaining why its products are safe and acceptable.  Its comment of FDA vs TTB Treasury Department) regulation is an indication of the messy way in which alcohol beverages are regulated.  TTB regulates the labels in an exceptionally complex way, with many inconsistencies and exceptions.  FDA regulates one category of wines (less than 7% alcohol) and beers that are made from something other than malted barley.  But FDA is also responsible for food additives, no matter where they go.  So the caffeine, tauring, and ginseng in Four Loko fall under FDA authority–not that it has done anything about them yet.

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