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The silly season is well underway. Multiple dates on the calendar have been blocked out for workplace end-of-year lunches, parties and various festivities with family and friends. And for many of us, the Christmas season typically goes hand in hand with an abundance of rich food and alcohol.
A labelling loophole
For anyone who wants to keep tabs on their indulgence – perhaps with the intention of balancing out the extra kilojoule intake with additional exercise – it should be a simple matter of checking the energy (kilojoules) in what you're consuming. After all, packaged food and beverages have to display a nutrition information panel on the label, detailing the kilojoules – and other key nutrients – they contain.
But there's one glaring exception to that rule: alcohol. Due to a regulatory loophole, alcoholic beverages are exempt from labelling kilojoule content, or any other nutrients for that matter.
Given the number of kilojoules in alcohol and the amount of alcohol Australians consume (not just at Christmas, but year-round), it's of real concern that we're not privy to this information.
What's in your drink?
It might be better value for money to share a bottle of red with a friend over dinner instead of buying a single glass each, but do you want the ability to compare which wine option has lower kilojoules?
Would you change your drink order or go back to the bar less often if you knew that a bottle of cider had, on average, more than 200 extra kilojoules than a bottle of beer?
And would you order a low-carb beer over a regular one if you knew it had a third less kilojoules?
Kilojoule labelling could help you make healthier choices, but right now it's a total guessing game.
Why an informed choice is important
Drinking a handful more kilojoules because you had that extra eggnog or finished off the bottle of dessert wine may seem inconsequential, particularly at this time of year, but the overall impact of kilojoules in alcohol is significant.
Discretionary foods – those that are kilojoule dense but offer little in the way of good nutrition – currently make up an unhealthy 35% of the average Australian's daily energy intake, and contribute to weight gain and obesity. Chips, confectionery and sugary soft drinks are likely the types of food that spring to mind, and they're certainly culprits, but in fact alcohol is now the leading contributor to Australia's discretionary kilojoule intake.
Leading health advice is to reduce consumption of discretionary foods and drinks, and knowing how many kilojoules they contain can help. Kilojoule information on the label of a chocolate bar, chip pack or a can of soft drink may make us think twice about buying it, or consider switching to a lower kilojoule alternative – and help identify which one. Even fast food chains are required to label kilojoules on the menu in most states, and research has shown that people both want this information and are using it to make healthier choices. But when it comes to alcohol, we're in the dark.
With almost two-thirds of Australian adults being classified as obese or overweight, it's no longer tenable that alcoholic beverages are exempt from providing this essential nutrition information.
At CHOICE, we think companies need to do more to help you make the decisions that are right for you.
Selective kilojoule information
Some companies voluntarily provide nutritional information for some of their alcoholic beverages, but often it's only for their lower kilojoule options.
For example, Lion Corporation publishes the kilojoule content of its 3.5% alcohol XXXX Gold beer online, but not its 5% alcohol 5 Seeds cider.
Carlton and United Breweries publishes the kilojoule content of its beer and cider products on its website. But of the 28 spirits listed, it only provides kilojoule information for six.
The alcoholic beverage industry believes self-regulation is the best approach and this pre-emptive strategy is often used to derail efforts to introduce tighter regulation. But we think allowing the industry to voluntarily provide this information is inadequate for dealing with this issue.