clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The hidden calories in your booze, explained

Very few people know what’s in their boozy beverages of choice.

Some mixed drinks can contain half a day’s worth of calories.
Volodymyr Goinyk/Shutterstock

Three pints of India pale ale can deliver you half a day’s worth of calories. And a typical glass of California cabernet sauvignon today may have more alcohol and more calories than it would have a decade ago.

Who knew?

Unlike companies that make food, brewers, distillers, and winemakers aren’t required to disclose calories and ingredients on their cans and bottles. (They've lobbied against this kind of regulation for years.) And survey data has shown that very few people have any idea what’s in their boozy beverages of choice.

The public health community has pushed hard to change that. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has been advocating for more transparency around alcohol labeling for more than a decade. In a letter sent to the Department of Treasury in early 2019, CSPI and two other consumer advocacy groups chastised the agency for shirking “its responsibility to require nutrition information on alcoholic beverages.“ It echoed a 2015 paper in the BMJ calling for mandatory nutrition labels, citing evidence that alcoholic drinks contribute to obesity.

Recently there have been small gains. Some of the nation’s biggest brewers — including Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors, HeinekenUSA, Constellation Brands Beer Division, North American Breweries, and Craft Brew Alliance — vowed to begin publishing nutrition information on new labels by 2020.

The measure, however, is voluntary. And it will only include calories, not ingredients. Wines, spirits, and mixed drinks, meanwhile, will still be a black box for calories and fat, as well as for added sugar, added flavors, and preservatives.

"The calories in alcohol are a concern because people may forget about them," said Lindsay Moyer, senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "We’re used to seeing calories on nutrition facts labels for almost any food package, but when you pick up an alcoholic drink, that information just isn’t there."

To fill in some of the information gaps, Moyer has been tracking the calories in popular alcoholic drinks. Her findings, published on CSPI’s Nutrition Action website, reveal a big range of calories in your favorite drinks — and even among different kinds of beer.

Beers can vary wildly in their calorie content

Some beers really are light as advertised: Most 12-ounce cans of light beer have about 4 percent alcohol and 100 calories. A beer, like Budweiser of the same size, is fairly light, too, with 5 percent alcohol and 150 calories.

But the calories start to creep up quite a bit when you get to Belgian brews, IPAs, and stouts, which often contain 7 to 10 percent alcohol. "When you see numbers like that, you’re getting into the 200- to 300-calorie range," said Moyer. That’s about the same amount of calories as a medium McDonald’s fries or a cup of vanilla ice cream.

Mixed drinks can pack in both calories and sugar

If you’re really watching your calorie intake, most beers are still going to be a better bet than most mixed drinks. The latter are usually loaded with sugar because of the juice, tonic water, or mixer — often sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup — that make them so drinkable.

Mixed drinks to be wary of, according to CSPI, include Olive Garden’s frozen margarita, at 340 calories — about the same as two and a half Budweisers or Coca-Colas.

The biggest health offender Moyer discovered was the Irish beer shake from the gourmet burger chain Red Robin. Made with Guinness, chocolate, and whipped cream, the drink contains more than 700 calories — about the same as the calories in a McDonald’s Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese.

The trouble with drinks this sugary and calorific is similar to the problem with soda: They're loaded with as much energy as many solid foods, but they don't fill you up the same way. So people end up taking in a lot of calories without the same satiety.

The calories in some popular wines are creeping up

Some popular wines today, like moscato, are boozier and more calorific.

There’s a little less calorie variation between wines than between beers: Most 6-ounce glasses of red or white have about 150 calories.

But there has been a general drift in wine production to sweeter types of grapes, said Gavin Lavi Sacks, a viticulture researcher at Cornell University. "It appears that average alcohol content of wine has gone up by about 1 percent volume by volume since the early 1990s, from about 12.5 percent to about 13.5 percent alcohol." And, again, more alcohol means more calories in every glass.

Part of this has to do with climate change, Sacks said, "since the warmer temperatures would hypothetically increase sugar accumulation at a faster rate than development of other desirable flavors." But there’s also anecdotal evidence "of winemakers seeking riper flavors, to keep pace with consumer or critic expectations."

For example, there’s been a growing interest in moscato, a sweeter wine that happens to contain more sugar and calories than average.

Nowhere is this trend toward ripe flavors more apparent than in California, which has become synonymous with wines produced using more sugary grapes. "Grape sugar content increases during the growing season, and later harvest dates result in more sugar," said Lavi Sacks. "Higher sugar content at the start of fermentation will result in more alcohol in the finished wine." The result: bottles that are a little sweeter, more alcoholic — and higher in calories. Or, as one New York Times article put it, wine with "a dense, opaque fruitiness well suited to a nation of Pepsi drinkers."

How to drink without gaining weight

alcohol chart Javier Zarracina/Vox

According to the latest US dietary guidelines, alcohol can be part of a healthy diet when consumed in moderation. For women, that means no more than one serving a day, and for men, no more than two.

That limit is good for your liver and your risk of cancer and chronic disease. It also works for your waistline. One serving of any type of wine or beer probably won't derail a healthy diet, but three or four certainly can.

If you aren’t sure how many calories are in your favorite drink, check out the National Institutes of Health's alcohol calories calculator for broad estimates and the searchable table below for information about specific brands.

As a general rule, drinks with more alcohol will carry more calories. Alcohol contains about 7 calories per gram, which is almost as much as the most calorie-dense nutrient of all: fat, which has 9 calories per gram. More alcohol in a drink means more calories. So that alcohol by volume, or ABV, metric listed on the side of your can or bottle is a good shorthand for how calorific your beverage is relative to others. (Low-alcohol wines and session or light beers are good options here.)

Drinks that are sweeter will also generally pack more calories. If you have a hankering for a mixed drink, avoid sugar- and cream-filled options and stick to those that use club soda instead of syrupy mixers.

"Alternate [alcoholic drinks] with water or tonic water, and order drinks after ordering [the rest of your] meal, as alcohol may stimulate appetite and dissolve resolve," obesity doctor Yoni Freedhoff said.

Want to dive deeper? Check out this table, compiled by Nutrition Action.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.