Guest Blog: A spotlight on calories and sugar this Alcohol Awareness Week

Guest Blog: A spotlight on calories and sugar this Alcohol Awareness Week

To mark this year’s Alcohol Awareness Week, Holly Gabriel RNutr., Nutrition Manager at Action on Sugar, explores the less documented area of alcoholic drinks – the calories and sugar content. 

Action on Sugar surveys traditionally look at food and drinks categories that contribute excess sugar and calories to UK diets, specifically to children’s diets. With an ultimate aim of reaching a consensus, that we need stricter regulation on sugar and calories levels of food, in order to reduce childhood obesity rates, which are now some of the highest in the world.

Sugar Awareness Week 2020 took place in January when the world was a very different place than it is now. The focus of the week was to raise awareness on the contribution drinks make to your daily calorie and sugar intake. We included ALL drinks, which meant that we had to explore a category that we hadn’t ventured into before, alcohol. It may be easy to assume that alcohol is not a major contributor to childhood obesity in the UK, or is it? Here are some stats:

  • In England, almost half of 15 year olds think its ok to drink alcohol once a week and one in five (19%) of 15 year olds think it’s okay to get drunk once a week[1].
  • In Wales, 17% of males and 14% of females aged 11-16 report drinking alcohol at least once a week[2].
  • In Scotland, young teenagers are much more likely to drink alcohol than smoke cigarettes[3].

Alcohol, just like fizzy drinks, confectionery and crisps, are not recommended as part of a healthy diet. Aside from the health risks associated with excessive alcohol consumption itself, alcohol contains seven calories per gram, and many alcoholic drinks contain added sugar which contributes to obesity and impacts oral health. Sugar in these drinks carries the same health risks as sugar in any other food or drink, which costs the NHS billions[4] and shortens lives. So, a double whammy for health, alcohol and sugar (& calories). Yet alcoholic drinks are subject to some of the weakest regulation when it comes to labelling and composition. Essentially, for the most part, buying alcohol drinks for example is akin to buying canned food with no label.

For Action on Sugar to find out how much sugar was in popular ready to drink alcoholic drinks (RTDs) such as gin and tonics, there was so little information available on the label, we had to send them to a laboratory for independent analysis. I’ll let that one sink in….. Whilst just 14 products (9%) had ‘sugar’ information on pack, some contained up to 12 teaspoons of sugar[5].

In July this year, as part of Boris Johnson’s renewed commitment to reducing obesity in the UK, the Government announced plans to consult on ending the exemption of these drinks from calorie labelling. The consultation, yet to be launched, is welcomed, but the question remains why has this taken so long and why just calories? Alcohol companies must be forced to be clear about ingredients and nutrition information. It has become very clear from working with colleagues in alcohol charities that this poor regulation does not stop with nutrition labelling. A recent report by the Alcohol Health Alliance[6] outlined the need for labels to include not only ingredients and FULL nutritional information but weekly low-risk drinking guidelines, alcohol content and units, a pregnancy warning, a health warning, a drink-driving warning and an age (under-18) warning.

Alcohol is in the definition of ‘food’ but escapes legislation and other measures such as the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL), which was successful in reducing sugar in drinks like lemonade, yet a pre-mixed vodka and lemonade is exempt. Just as the SDIL has forced the big soft drinks companies out of their hiding place and forced them to act on the flood of sugar coming into the food supply, we need stricter regulation for the alcohol industry, not no regulation or voluntary self-regulation, this needs to be implemented both in and out of home. We need to ensure, as Nutritionists and as those working in food policy and childhood obesity, that we include alcohol in the conversation, and not let it slip through the cracks.

Sugar Awareness Week 2021 will take place from 10th-16th May

Tweet us! @actiononsugar @holly_gabe

Holly studied Public Health Nutrition at Cardiff Metropolitan University and has since worked in several areas of nutrition including as a Child Weight Management Nutritionist and Programme Co-ordinator for healthy weight services for young people across London. More recently Holly has worked as a Nutritionist for Waitrose working within the Technical and Corporate Responsibility team.

Holly joined the Action on Sugar team in May 2018 and is responsible for driving all Action on Sugar priorities to ensure the government commits to an evidenced-based obesity strategy and that it is implemented effectively.







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