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The question

I’ve always wondered why alcohol products don’t seem to be covered by the Canada Nutrition Facts – or some other – labelling rules. When I buy a bottle of water, I’m told that it contains zero calories, zero fat, zero cholesterol, zero carbohydrates.

A box of corn flakes has its Nutrition Facts label and a list of ingredients that it “may contain.” But I buy a bottle of wine and there’s no such labelling. (Sometimes it will say “may contain sulphites," but not in a consistent format or font. And I’m never sure if they have to tell you the alcohol content or just choose to.)

Some ciders are fermented apple juice and others are apple-flavoured sugar water with alcohol. The consumer can’t tell which is which. You see where I’m going. Any thoughts?

The answer

You’re not alone in wondering about that puzzling omission. Most packaged foods in Canada must carry a standardized “Nutrition Facts” table listing calories and information on 13 core nutrients, such as fat, sodium, protein and carbohydrates. They’re designed to help us choose healthier options. Some products, such as those sold in bulk and at roadside stands, are exempted. So, too, are alcoholic drinks, or more specifically, those with an alcohol content greater than 0.5 per cent.

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On the surface, that might seem to make little sense. Lots of people believe they would benefit from knowing, say, the calorie count or residual-sugar level in their favourite merlot. The problem is that alcohol can cause physical and mental harm for reasons that have nothing to do with fat or cholesterol or sugar. The upshot: Our federal government would prefer that we did not see wine, beer or spirits in the same light as basic food items when making buying decisions.

“There is a risk that some consumers would infer a nutritional benefit from alcoholic beverages with a Nutrition Facts label” because such labels are strongly associated with food, says Anna Maddison, senior media-relations adviser for Health Canada. Decisions about drinking alcoholic beverages “must go beyond looking at the label,” she adds. In other words, just because one merlot may contain fewer calories or sugar than another doesn’t mean it’s necessarily going to be less harmful to your overall health.

That said, Maddison notes that consumers can find information about the caloric and nutrient content of standard alcoholic beverages by consulting the Canadian Nutrient File available on Health Canada’s website.

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