Have you every noticed that the alcohol you buy doesn’t usually come with an ingredient label? Ever wonder why that is? The way we regulate food and beverages gives an exemption to alcohol, which I’ll detail in this post.
Typical food and beverage products you buy at the supermarket are regulated through the FDA and USDA. These regulatory agencies mandate safety checks, ingredient labels, nutrition information, and standards of identity, among other things.
Alcohol, however, is regulated under the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). The TTB does things like issue permits to alcohol producers and approve labels on alcohol products. What they don’t do is require an ingredient or nutrition label.
Take a look at the next bottle of fruit-infused beer that you buy. The flavor has to come from somewhere whether it’s peels, whole fruit, juice, or concentrate. If it was a food item, you’d be able to look at the ingredient list and know with a fair amount of certainty where it came from. With alcohol, there’s no guarantee. Producers can of course, voluntarily put that information on a label, but it’s not common.
Now, the TTB does regulate materials and processing aids for wine, particularly to determine upper limits on how much can be added. They consult with the FDA to determine GRAS status of these additives, who will ban their use if it believes a material is unsafe. Alcohol producers also need to register with the FDA and are now subject to inspections.
As for additives and processing aids in other alcoholic products, there are a few that have to be labeled, but not as many as most people think. The list is limited to sulfite, tartrazine, saccharine, aspartame (in malt beverages), and cochineal extract. If your wine is fined with egg whites or clay, two common processing aids, it’s not required on the label.
Does this seem slightly random? That’s because it is. There is very little consistency in how we regulate and label alcohol, and there are definitely gaps. To make matters worse, there is little uniformity across countries, so we don’t have many good examples of label transparency.
The TTB will start allowing a Serving Facts statement on alcohol for nutritional information, which consumers will start seeing in 2020. They aren’t touching ingredient labels as of yet. All in all, the alcohol you are buying is not likely to be unsafe. There are regulations and safety measures in place, BUT you might not know exactly what’s in it. If label transparency is important to you, contact the TTB to let them know.
And if that’s not enough of a push, I’ll leave you with this tidbit: In 1993, the TTB was thinking about requiring nutrition labels and solicited comments. They received 7 from the public and 35 from industry. They determined it was unnecessary and unwarranted.