by Marion Nestle
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?



  • Emma

    “I’m drinking all this beer. How come I’m not losing weight?!”

  • Lee P.

    It is sad to think that there are, apparently, a lot of people who think there is a health vodka and a slimming beer out there. I don’t think Treasury will forbid any of this as, after all, they’ve been busy for decades profitably regulating the sale of known carcinogens and weapons. Alcohol seems positively healthy in comparison!

  • Thanks, Marion, for posting the report that I co-authored.

    Lee, actually the sad part is that the TTB does not allow such health claims now, they just don’t bother to enforce their own rules. But of course, TTB is the wrong agency to be regulating alcohol anyway.

  • Anthro


    Brilliant! And, Cheers!
    Alcohol advertising is the perfect example of how pointless self-regulation is. One of their self-imposed “limits” is to never picture anyone actually drinking. Watch the ads–people toast and douse and make like wild parties, but they never actually put the bottle or glass to their lips! I bet you never even noticed this, let alone find it discourages anyone to “drink responsibly”. Since the first thing to be affected is judgement, it doesn’t seem that responsibility would be far behind.

    And I cannot tell you how many women friends I have had to disabuse of the idea that vodka has no calories just because it has “no carbs”!

    Oh yes, did I mention the “lo-cal” cocktail I saw on a menu recently? Of course it did not specify the calories, or the ingredients. Nor did the waitress have any further info–hint: it’s just a marketing ploy.

  • As with the Wall St. crash, everything is justified if it makes enough money. Wasn’t good enough back then and advertising like this gives people implied permission to overindulge because “it’s healthy.”

  • This somehow, on a gut level, bothers me less than misleading claims on foods I can see people really thinking are healthy. Am I wrong to believe people know alcohol isn’t good for them? Sure, it’s not right but even college students know vodka, gluten free or not, isn’t “good”?

  • Charlie L

    Treausury did such a great job with the economy, surely they’ll do better with regulating alcohol!

  • Subvert

    They call this a “healthy halo” in marketing moron speak. They try to play on people’s weakest or strongest feelings, ex. obsessive attention to physical appearance/weight loss, and because we live in such a shallow society, it all just sells itself. That, and the fact that the TTB, which regulates (or doesn’t regulate) alcohol is a revenue regulatory group, not a public safety regulatory group. So drink up, we need to keep U.S. warlords and commandos armed and in business!

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  • Dorie Apollonio

    Alcohol is tricky to regulate on the national level because the 21st Amendment basically relegates alcohol control to the states. I’m not sure that Treasury even has the power to regulate, not that it would use it if it did.

    The NIAAA’s best response to this issue has been to track state laws by creating APIS, but it’s a pretty small step.

    And now NIAAA is on track to be taken over by NIDA, an agency where I suspect not a single person has ever considered the problems inherent in state v. federal regulation. At any rate, it’s difficult to imagine how states could ever effectively address these national-level campaigns, given that the feds are out of the picture, constitutionally speaking. By comparison to alcohol, even federal tobacco regulation looks draconian these days.

  • Sam

    I agree that the antioxidant & protein claims are obviously wrong, and that no alcoholic beverage should make label claims about improving helath. What I don’t see is how talking about infused flavors or fruits is a health claim or an issue…heck isn’t that what wine is, a grape variety fermented and traditionally infused with notes of oak? As for MGD 64, while I think it tastes awful, it is only 64 calories (compared to 140 in a 12 oz soda) and about 2% abv…so I’m not sure why it can’t be presented as low calorie compared to a normal beer…if they want nutritional labels on beers the reduced calories will be even more obvious for consumers as regular beer has about 3-4x as many caloires.

    My issue with the Marin Institue is that their agenda is not health but prohibition, and their reports are as biased as corporate marketing. They and big business have both been roadblocks to talking intelligently and rationally about alcohol policy and it’s place in society.

  • Sam

    Dorie/Charlie – The Treasury, earlier in the form of the ATF and now the TTB, does and has had the power to regulate alcohol since the end of prohibition. They issue licenses for manufacture, review and approve every label and added flavoring ingredient. In some cases they review and approve the entire process for production.

    Now Federal approval is necessary but not sufficient for alcohol product & sale. As you mentioned the States also have power to regulate, and all regulate licenses for manufacture and sale, so you need both a federal and state license to make & sell alcohol. Some states leave label/process approval to the TTB, some require approval at the state level. Some counties even have further regulations. This is what makes it difficult for small companies to be successful in the alcohol business, as it is hard to find all the regulatory requirements one needs to be incompliance when expanding shipments to a new state and the rules, though improving in many states, are tilted in the favor of big distributors and big business.

  • fuzzy

    I suffer from a chronic Vitamin R deficiency — unless I get rum weekly I start to get symptoms resembling a combination of mad cow and parkinson’s disease.

    Just to insert a serious note to the discussion, we were better off when alcohol and cigarettes were advertised and pharmaceutical companies did not. At least we all knew that the alcohol and cigarette people were pulling our chains, the pharmaceutical companies masquerade their marketing as serious attempts to persuade us that we NEED their drugs for every solution to our lives.

  • Jon

    I am getting sick of the gluten-free fad. There’s now gluten-free pet food (as if dogs and cats get celiac disease), gluten-free vodka (as if it ever contained gluten in the first place), and lots of other weird stuff.

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  • Marisa

    Actually, I would appreciate a vodka company testing their product for gluten. Some celiacs are concerned that grain may vaporize during the distilling process and contaminate the alcohol. Knowing a vodka is gluten free makes me more likely to choose that vodka over others who cannot give me clear answer about their product. Yes I have Celiac disease. And on another note, many dogs have health problems related to the food they are fed which is mostly made with corn and gluten. Dogs and cats are not meant to consume a diet that high in grain, they are supposed to eat meat and vegetables. I prefer to feed my pets gluten free as I do not even want gluten to enter my house in any form.

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  • mark

    I don’t understand how explicit health claims are fine while “implicit claims,” ie calling a beer ‘The Tonic’, are forbidden:

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