Do you know how many calories you’d find in a negroni? An old-fashioned? What about an espresso martini? Next time you find yourself in the supermarket, take a look at the label on a carton of milk. At a glance you can see that 100ml of semi-skimmed milk contains roughly 50kcal of energy (confusingly, the terms kcal and calorie are used interchangeably), 1.8g of fat, 1.1g of saturates, 4.8g of sugar and 0.1g of salt.
But head down the alcohol aisle and you’ll be stepping into the nutritional Wild West. According to a new survey of 369 alcohol products in locations around the UK, conducted by the Alcohol Health Alliance, only 41 per cent of alcohol products put calorie information on the bottle or can, six per cent displayed the sugar content of their drinks and just 20 per cent showed a list of ingredients.
“My figures can only represent an approximate amount, as calories vary widely depending on the mixer and quantity,” says functional nutritionist and author Pauline Cox, who has revealed to The Daily Telegraph the amount of calories found in some of Britain’s favourite cocktails.
Theoretically, alcohol calories should be easy to work out. Each gram of pure alcohol is about 7kcal. One unit of alcohol (you can work out the units in a drink by the volume in litres multiplied by the drink’s alcohol by volume, or ABV) is roughly 8g. A litre of gin at 40 per cent ABV is 40 units, 320g of pure alcohol, and around 2,240kcal. The higher the ABV, the more calories in your drink; but once manufacturers add fruit juices and sugar syrups, it’s impossible to say.
The trouble, for discerning drinkers, is that the alcohol industry almost entirely self-regulates in terms of what it prints on its labels.
According to information from the Food Standards Agency: “Beverages which have an alcohol by volume above 1.2 per cent have to be marked with their alcoholic strength under the Food Industry to Consumers (FIC) or specific wine legislation. Otherwise, such beverages enjoy some exemptions from the usual FIC labelling requirements... No nutrition information need be given for alcoholic drinks.”
Despite mandating that the rest of the food and drink industry must carry nutrition information – and making most pubs and restaurants include calorie counts on menus since April this year – successive governments have allowed the alcohol industry to evade regulations. Despite committing to consulting on the introduction of similar mandatory calorie labelling as part of the Tackling Obesity Strategy which was published in July 2020, the Government has failed to do so.
But the introduction of calorie and nutrition labelling is popular with the public. A 2021 YouGov survey found that 75 per cent of people wanted the number of units in a product on alcohol labels, 61 per cent wanted calorie information and 53 per cent wanted the amount of sugar.
Some think it’s past time for the Government to stand up to the alcohol lobby. “People should have the facts to make their own decisions,” says Dr Robin Piper, chief executive of Alcohol Change UK. “The alcohol industry has messed up self-regulation. Alcohol-free drinks have to put nutrition information, plus ingredients on their labels.
“Something like Seedlip [an upmarket alcohol replacement] has to print this information, whereas if they added some gin they’d get to hide whatever they wanted. It’s bonkers that the more dangerous drinks become, the less information you have to provide.”
Why the sugar and calories in your cocktail matter
According to figures from Alcohol Change UK, around £4 billion per year of the total NHS budget is swallowed by treating alcohol-specific and alcohol-related conditions combined, but there are personal health concerns, too.
The NHS recommends an overall daily intake of 2,000 kcals for women and 2,500 for men. But while alcohol counts towards that total, it contains “empty calories,” explains nutritionist Jenna Hope. “If you were to consume 100kcals in the form of chicken, your brain would release hormones which contribute to you feeling fuller. Whereas if you get 100kcals from alcohol, your brain doesn’t register it: you’re still just as hungry and just as inclined to eat later on.”
If you’re drinking alcohol, your digestion process will also be less efficient. “When you drink alcohol and eat at the same time, your body views that alcohol as poison, so it will focus on metabolising that alcohol to the detriment of everything else,” she says. “That can affect how nutrients are absorbed and where that energy is used. You’re more likely to store energy as fat than if you weren’t drinking.”
Aside from their impact on weight gain, the calories in alcohol also have a different route through the body compared with food calories.
“Ten per cent of [the calories] are metabolised within the stomach and intestine, and a further 10 per cent is metabolised by the brain – this causes the intoxicating effects,” explains Cox. “That means approximately 96 calories make it to the liver. Ethanol causes an inflammatory reaction in your liver.
“The body quickly uses up its stores of the powerful antioxidant glutathione to combat damage. Ethanol does not get metabolised into glycogen and goes straight into the mitochondria with any excess being turned straight into fat and stored in the liver. When excessive amounts of fat are made and the liver becomes increasingly fatty, the fat starts getting deposited in the skeletal muscle and in and around the organs. Alcoholic fatty liver progresses.”
Excess fat in the liver can eventually lead to a condition called fatty liver disease which, left unchecked for years, can lead to liver failure or liver cancer. Cocktails are of special concern with regards to fatty liver disease, says Cox. “The fructose in fruit juice or soft drinks is used by the body in exactly the same way as alcohol is,” she explains. “The body can’t convert fructose into energy and so stores it around the liver. This causes non-alcoholic fatty liver.”
How to drink more healthily
“It’s always a funny conversation when you talk about health and alcohol together, because they’re not things that naturally go together,” laughs Louis Macpherson, head bartender at top London cocktail bar, Lyaness. “There’s a wealth of products out there which might not be as heavy-hitting but are still packed full of flavour: sherries, teas, kombuchas – there is really deliciousness in lighter products. There’s not much you can do with juices, but some of those things can really replace those flavours in a nice way.”
More generally, Macpherson advises that as with food, “being close to the source of your ingredients will allow you to know what you’re drinking; it’ll also help you develop your palate and learn balance. It’s like cooking for yourself versus putting a ready meal in the microwave.”
There are simple swaps to make too, suggests Cox. “White wine spritzer takes some of the sugar from your wine glass, a dash of vodka with freshly squeezed lime and soda water is lighter than gin and tonic, or try a [relatively] low-alcohol cocktail such as some freshly-chopped turmeric, ginger, cracked black pepper, lemon or lime juice and a splash of vodka in a long glass of sparkling water.”
Clearly the alcohol industry is in no hurry to provide more information on the products it sells us. But there’s no reason why we shouldn’t help ourselves to a side order of nutritional knowledge the next time we shout out for a cocktail.