by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Alcohol

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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Oct 6 2010

Today’s oxymoron: Alcohol companies support breast cancer research

I can’t quite get my head around this one.  According to USA Today (October 5), some makers of alcohol drinks have joined the “pink” campaigns to raise awareness of breast cancer and more research.

Chambord’s website notes that its Pink Your Drink campaign has raised more than $50,000 in donations for the Breast Cancer Network of Strength and other patient groups.

Mike’s Hard Lemonade has given $500,000 over the past two years to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, company President Phil O’Neil says. The company was inspired by the loss of an employee named Jacqueline who died after a long battle with breast cancer.

But alcohol is clearly implicated as a cause of breast cancer.  USA Today discusses that connection—to imbibe or not—in another article in the same issue.

Alcohol raises complicated public health issues for women.  On the one hand, moderate drinking reduces the risk of heart disease.  On the other, it raises the risk of breast cancer.

That is why dietary guidelines suggest no more than one drink a day for women, with a drink defined as 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, and 1.5 ounces of hard liquor.

But alcohol companies using donations to pink causes as marketing?  Could we expect breast cancer research sponsored by alcohol companies to focus on the relationship of alcohol to breast cancer?  Is this any different than cigarette companies paying for lung cancer research?

Ethics, anyone?

Mar 19 2010

The “let’s open a winery” video

Dear new foodists (I do love the term – see previous post): For some light entertainment over the weekend, try this short cartoon. A sommelier has a conversation with his wife on an otherwise empty New York subway.  Thanks to Rob Kaufelt of Murray’s Cheese for sending.

Jan 29 2010

Not sure about soda taxes? Read this!

The New York City Health Department has produced a handy guide – a tool kit, actually – to soda tax legislation.    It explains the rationale, reviews the evidence supporting the use of such taxes, provides fact sheets, and answers Frequently Asked Questions.  For the academics among us, it provides loads of reference citations.  Take a look and put it to good use!

Update January 30: FoodNavigator.com did a report on reaction to the soda tax bill, “Fresh New York soda tax plans stir up the obesity debate.”  It’s got a great quote from the American Beverage Association:

What’s particularly disconcerting about this proposal is that the tax on a 12-pack of non-alcoholic beverages, like soft drinks, would be more than 9 times higher than the state tax on a 12-pack of alcoholic beverages, like beer.

This, as you might expect, has stirred up some counter-proposals, the most obvious being to increase the tax on alcoholic beverages.  Now that ought to generate some additional revenue!

While we are on the subject of alcohol, a forthcoming paper by Barry Popkin is said to have some interesting trend data:

Among adults aged 19 and over, SSB [sugar-sweetened beverage] consumption had almost doubled from 64 to 142kcal/day and alcohol consumption had increased from 45 to 115 kcal/day [from 1977-2006].

Popkin’s conclusion: “The consumer shift towards increased levels of SSBs and alcohol, limited amounts of reduced fat milk along with a continued consumption of whole milk, and increase juice intake represent issues to address from a public health perspective.”

Nov 14 2009

FDA “looking into” safety of caffeinated booze

The FDA announced today that it has sent letters to 30 makers of caffeinated alcoholic beverages warning them that caffeine is not approved as an additive to booze:

Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, a substance added intentionally to food (such as caffeine in alcoholic beverages) is deemed “unsafe” and is unlawful unless its particular use has been approved by FDA regulation, the substance is subject to a prior sanction, or the substance is Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS).    FDA has not approved the use of caffeine in alcoholic beverages and thus such beverages can be lawfully marketed….The FDA noted that it is unaware of the basis upon which manufacturers may have concluded that the use of caffeine in alcoholic beverages is GRAS or prior sanctioned.  To date, the FDA has only approved caffeine as an additive for use in soft drinks in concentrations of no greater than 200 parts per million.  It has not approved caffeine for use at any level in alcoholic beverages.

The FDA asked the companies to provide evidence that the products are safe.  It also opened up a new web page on caffeinated alcoholic beverages.  This gives samples of letters, the list of manufacturers, and letters to FDA from attorneys general and scientists.  There is also a Q and A.  For example:

Q3. What happens if the industry doesn’t share its data in the next 30 days? What options are available to FDA?

A3. If FDA determines that the use of caffeine in an alcoholic beverage is not GRAS or subject to a prior sanction, FDA has a range of regulatory options available to it, from the issuance of a warning letter to seizure. It is the manufacturer’s continuing responsibility to ensure that the foods they market are in compliance with all applicable legal and regulatory requirements. FDA intends to exercise all options that are appropriate for the product in question.

As Michele Simon of the Marin Institute puts it, “It seems the sleeping giant has awaken!

Indeed it does.  You don’t think this counts for much?  Ask the makers of some of these drinks.  A couple of companies already have “voluntarily” removed the caffeine.  I’m willing to bet that others will soon follow?

Jun 24 2009

Organic wine: clarification of the rules (?)

You would think that the labeling of organic wine would be simple, but you would be so wrong.  Just for fun, here’s who does what in the federal government when it comes to food and beverages.  For the most part:

  • USDA does meat and poultry
  • FDA does everything else
  • Except alcohol, which is done by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB)
  • Except that USDA does all organic food
  • Except for organic wine, sort of
  • Problem solved: USDA and TTB have made a deal.  TTB will do organic wine
  • Except that USDA has just changed the rules

Got all that?

I won’t try to reproduce the rules for organic wines; they look too much like what I’ve just written.  Take a look at judge for yourself.  I’m just happy that all this has been straightened out.