Phil Cook analyses big beer’s latest health campaign
Depending on your buying or browsing habits and your eye for detail, you may notice extra statistics on certain beer labels in the coming weeks and months. Lion and DB, under the banner of the Brewers Association (a lobby group for the large breweries in Australasia, of which they are the two members who operate in NZ), have undertaken to add nutritional information – much like you’d see on a bottle of soft drink – to 30-odd products of theirs from Tui and Lion Red, to Mac’s and Monteith’s, Heineken and Steinlager. Their ‘craft’ subsidiaries such as Panhead and Tuatara are not part of the initial roll-out.
The premise is simple enough: the Association says that surveys show consumers think this information should be on packaging and also that the public have large gaps in their knowledge about beer. The campaign – which includes a wider marketing push under the ‘Beer The Beautiful Truth’ banner (btbt.co.nz) – is pitched as informative and ‘myth-busting’: in addition to the familiar tables of raw nutritional data, there are small graphics with messages like “This beer is 99% sugar free”. Lion and DB are making this change voluntarily and inviting other brewers to join them in it; the Association notes that the government may be planning to legislate in this area, and they aim to get out ahead of that.
Problems with this proposal, unfortunately, readily come to mind.
The information provided seems like an act of misdirection. “Sugar free!” may well be true, but is besides the point (nutritionally speaking) when it comes to beer. This is much like when candyis labelled “fat free!”, when of course it is: candy isn’t made with fat – and sugar is (mostly) fermented away when beer is made. Alcohol and kilojoules are the relevant variables to consider when balancing your lifestyle, and they’re provided but buried in spurious detail about protein, dietary fibre, and sodium, things for which beer just isn’t a relevant source for most people.
On the flip side of that, there are glaring omissions here if the intent is truly to inform. Despite all their additional new information, Lion and DB are steadfastly refusing to provide simple lists of ingredients. The need for them is obvious: many people have allergies or (cultural or clinical) dietary requirements that make knowing what their beer is made from crucial – whether this stout has milk sugar, or whether its finings are vegan-friendly etc. The Association hasn’t even tried to offer an excuse for why this obvious step wasn’t taken as part of this initiative.
The industry-wide side-effects of a move like this can’t be ignored, especially when our two largest producers are the first movers. The phrasing of “This beer is…” implies things, true or not, about non-participating beers, and a lot of people may make the unfair assumption that breweries who don’t add these panels to their packaging have something to hide. If Government sees this campaign as a workable enough de facto standard and adopts it as mandatory, then small breweries with shorter production runs and more occasional and seasonal offerings will face massively disproportionate compliance costs. Personally, I’m skeptical enough to think these potential “side-effects” are actually the true motivation behind this move – but they remain a real problem even if the Association is 100 per cent pure in its intentions.
A counter-proposal is, I submit, fairly easy to draft. Including kilojoule counts on packaging is the one wholly-praiseworthy element of this campaign and all breweries should adopt it. An accurate-enough estimate can be derived, without additional expensive lab testing, from data already collected during the brewing process. Energy content sits comfortably alongside alcohol level as clearly the two most relevant factors for beer and health for almost all people. Then, instead of relative irrelevancies like protein and sodium counts, we should mandate the declaration (in broad terms) of all ingredients. These are, obviously, all known to the brewery already and so also avoid the problem of compliance costs. ABV + KJs + ingredients would be a workable standard for breweries of all sizes, and would give the public the information they need, deserve, and demand.
The Association and its members could still mount a properly educational campaign to correct misunderstandings about things like how and why sugar is used, and ingredient listings would obviously help counter the other commonly-believed myth they cite – that beer is full of preservatives. As it stands, ‘Beer The Beautiful Truth’ misses its stated target completely enough to make it fair to wonder if they were really trying. Beer and beer drinkers deserve better; we should take the chance to demand a more honest and useful standard before this flawed approach wins by default.