People started sending me the headlines a few weeks ago. "Just two glasses of wine could exceed whole's day sugar intake." "Two glasses of wine have more calories than a burger." One compared wine to donuts. Local TV stations were reporting on a new study out of the U.K. that had found wine was packed with sugar.
I was intrigued. Was my Cabernet sweeter than candy? Are there actual cupcakes in Cupcake?
Seriously though, my first thought was, Wait, which wines?
The study in question was a report from the Alcohol Health Alliance UK (AHA), which describes itself as "an alliance of more than 60 non-governmental organizations which work together to promote evidence-based policies to reduce the harm caused by alcohol." For this project, they commissioned a laboratory to analyze the sugar and calorie content of 30 wines from several top brands in the U.K., based on grocery data.
"Government guidelines recommend no more than 30 grams of free sugars per day for an adult—yet it's possible to reach almost this entire amount of sugar by drinking just two medium-sized glasses of some of the most popular wine on the market," the authors write.
But if you look at a table of the wines they analyzed, only one actually comes close to delivering 30 grams of sugar in two glasses: Barefoot Bubbly Pink Moscato. A 6-ounce glass contains 13.8 grams of sugar, so if you drank two full glasses of this pink sweet bubbly, you'd consume 27.6 grams.
Just seven of the 30 wines the AHA analyzed contain more than 3.1 grams of sugar, and they are all either sweet wines or fruit wines. Echo Falls Sparkling Summer Berries? Blossom Hill Spritz Elderflower and Lemon? Are these the wines you thought of when you read that your wine could be packed with sugar?
Twenty of the 30 wine brands the AHA looked at contain less than 2 grams of sugar—less than the average can of hard seltzer—and nine of those contain less than 1 gram. Those nine are typical dry wines: Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and a Rioja.
Not so fast, says the AHA. What about the calories? The report argues that those dry wines are packed with them. "Alcohol is very energy dense, with just two medium-sized glasses of the most calorific wines analyzed containing more calories than a McDonald's hamburger," the authors write.
A glass of the two highest-calorie wines they looked at—Hardy Stamp Shiraz Cabernet and Yellow Tail Shiraz—contains 139 calories. According to McDonald's website, a hamburger contains 250 calories. That's it? Well, yes. But by comparison, a Big Mac contains more than 550 calories, and the average 4-ounce burger you cook on the grill contains more than 350, and that's before the bun, cheese and everything else. Calories add up fast. The average glass of wine contains 120 calories, and the AHA wines match that, ranging from 100 to 139.
The AHA data doesn't match up with the group's scary rhetoric, which is no accident. This is not a peer-reviewed study financed by a university. The AHA exists to highlight health problems related to alcohol consumption in order to discourage drinking. It's part of a growing neo-prohibitionist movement that appears to have decided the best way to combat excessive drinking is not to aid people with alcohol addiction but to scare people who drink moderately. I suspect people who suffer from alcoholism are not that worried about excess sugar and calories.
Unfortunately, wineries keep giving these scare tactics an opening. When it comes to nutrition, the devil is always in the details. Since most wines don't have nutritional information on their labels, there are no details.
Most food and drinks are required to have nutritional information labels. Because alcohol beverages are not overseen by the FDA, they have long been exempt from those labels, but they have had the option to use them since 2013. Most hard seltzer brands and other new drinks have opted to do so. Most wineries have not.
A good friend of mine who is a longtime wine collector surprised me last year when he mentioned he was cutting back on wine. "How come?" I asked. "Too many calories," he responded. Had he quit drinking? "No, I just have a glass of vodka instead."
I explained that the average glass of wine contains about 120 calories. How many calories in vodka? Two ounces contain about 120. The devil is in the details.