The Connection Between Alcohol And Health Is Being Played Out In Part Via Label Terms
By Amy Zavatto
Everyone knows “what’s in the bottle” counts, but how much does what’s on the bottle say about its contents? When it comes to the relative purity and healthfulness of wine or spirits, the answer is: surprisingly little.
Whereas Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations require ingredient listing (in descending quantities) and a “Nutrition Facts” box (including calories) on food and drink labels, wine, beer and spirits fall under the aegis of Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), and operate under completely different rules.
The flip side of what must be on the label (the prescribed government warning about impairment, plus contains sulfites for wine) is what can not be—which is basically any health claims. Meanwhile, however, America’s health awareness has grown to become positively mainstream. Terms such as “organic” and “gluten free” (not to mention “natural” “sustainable” and so on), are the new normal at food and beverage points of sale from coast to coast. With vintners, brewers and distillers prohibited from making even health references let alone claims, there is more pressure on retail merchants to understand and be able to make sense of label terms for their customers.
What’s In A Name?
“If they imply a product is organic, they have to comply with USDA organic regulations,” says Miles McEvoy, Deputy Administrator of the National Organic Program, which develops national standards for organic agricultural products within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Those USDA regulations involve inspection and approval of everything from ingredients to production facilities to cleaning products used. Passing muster with a third-party organic certifier (NOP recognizes more than 80) will earn the USDA seal of approval—something you will see far more often on spirits bottles then wine labels.
“It’s a little more nuanced for wine because of the sulfites used in processing,” explains McEvoy. “To be able to label a wine as organic, it must use both organic grapes and contain no added sulfites. In the U.S., you won’t find much organic wine, but you will find a lot of wine labeled as ‘made with organic grapes.’” A producer stating the use of organic grapes must identify the third-party organic certifier as well.
It’s important to remember that while “organic” has come to be perceived as “healthy” in general society, producers in our industry embrace it not merely for healthfulness, but also quality. “We focus a lot on having highest quality raw material and the highest quality spirits,” says Robert Birnecker, distiller and co-owner of Koval Spirits in Chicago, whose products have been certified organic (and kosher) from the get-go. “We just saw organic grains and other ingredients we could source were the higher quality.”
“Gluten free” is another term that has proliferated in recent years. The USDA and TTB adjusted regulations on gluten-free usage in 2014. To break it down in simple terms: You can only legally label your product as gluten-free if you are distilling or fermenting from an ingredient that already doesn’t contain gluten. However, if a producer is starting off with, say, wheat or other gluten-ful ingredient, they may make the claim of gluten-free if the liquid has gone through a gluten-removing process and the final product contains less than 20 parts per million.
Biodynamic & Sustainable: Not The Same
The terms Biodynamic and Sustainable illustrate how things start to get more complicated. Biodynamic producers adhere to the holistic and agricultural parameters developed by Rudolf Steiner in Austria. The philosophy behind the system is that a farm/vineyard is a living, breathing organism, and so everything in and around it—the air, soil, water, sky, people, organisms, animals—affect its health.
Demeter International, the official certification organization for Biodynamic products, operates with guidelines even stricter than USDA organic regulations. While Demeter is not controlled by the U.S. government, like organic producers, Biodynamic ones must pass third-party inspection. For Demeter, that’s Stellar Certification Services in the United States.
The terms “sustainable” and “natural” both have a great ring to it, but neither has any legal standing whatsoever. Natural, as it relates to wine, has become a touchstone of controversy, though its actual appearance on wine labels is far less frequent than somm/blogger debates might suggest. Sustainable, on the other hand, has grown with avocado-like vigor, becoming recognized as pure and good-for-you.
More important, sustainability has been embraced, adopted and codified to varying degrees in multiple regions and nations. A growing array of organizations, like SIP (Sustainability in Practice) based in the Central Coast of California and LISW (Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing), help wine grape growers in particular to adopt and adhere to practices that are healthier for planet and people alike. But while they have inspectors, they are by and large non-profit organizations that rely on self-policing and not at all governed by federal (or state) laws.
In short, when it comes to back label seals of approval, they vary in degrees of meaning and legality, but they do all mean something good. So you can stock them and vouch for them as being from people who are trying to make their products as healthful as possible. And that counts for a lot in many consumers’ minds.