Why Calorie Content for Alcohol is Pointless

Why Calorie Content for Alcohol is Pointless

Ricky the Meadmaker
4 minute read

We are constantly asked about the calorie content of our various products, which on the face of it appears to be a very reasonable question. Lots of products have nutrition information on them, including a handful of alcoholic beverages. It seems like useful information, right?

Ignoring for a moment the fact that the law requiring nutrition information (including calorie content) for alcoholic beverages applies exclusively to craft mead and cider and excludes literally 99.96% of the beverage market (wine, beer, liquor, and drinks served at restaurants), we’re still left with the question: “What’s the big deal?”

The big deal is that the calorie content of alcoholic beverages is an utterly meaningless number.

Before we get into the science of the problem, let’s discuss how nutrition information is organized.

​Alcohol is, in fact, a macronutrient. Traditional nutrition information has no section for this, so they tend to throw it under carbohydrates which is A) incorrect and B) misleading.

In other cases, the nutrition information is organized in such a way that it shows 0% for every category, but still somehow has 64 calories. This is what Google yields if you search for the nutrition information on a shot of liquor.

The scientific concerns, however, fall into two categories. The simple one is that we often use bomb calorimeters to measure the calorie content of food. Ethanol is an explosive compound which is why we can put it in our gas tanks. Unfortunately, humans don’t burn food to get energy from it.

Imagine the calorie count of, say, a piece of Douglas fir in a bomb calorimeter. It would be massively higher than a commensurate volume of hamburger. And yet, no matter how many cords of wood you manage to eat, a single hamburger will yield more usable calories for a human. Which brings us to the complicated part.

The catabolism of ethanol is extremely complex and occurs in three steps. For reasons ranging from genetics to speed of consumption to drinking habit to random fluctuations throughout the day, humans will complete anywhere from one to three of these steps which yields a calorie intake which can vary by a factor of six.

The Wikipedia article has more details than we’ll share here, but as simply as possible: When we consume alcohol, it becomes acetaldehyde. If the catabolism continues, this becomes acetic acid. If this acetic acid is fully metabolized in step three, there’s a huge release of energy.

Full catabolism of ethanol yields 1,325 kJ/mol. If, however, you’re either the sort of person where (or consuming alcohol in such a fashion that) you excrete it as urine as soon as it becomes acetic acid, you derive a mere 215 kJ/mol. That is, as mentioned above, one-sixth the calories from the exact same drink.

If Mary can consume six pints of mead and get the same number of calories that Bob does when he drinks just one, why in the name of the gods would the information be included at all? At best it’s pointless, at worst dangerously misleading.

Let’s state this again: Mary could have a glass of wine every day of the month while her husband Bob could limit himself to a single glass on Sundays and there is a chance that they would be getting the same caloric load from the alcohol in their diet.

We don’t expect the FDA to read this article or the Wikipedia page or do anything at all about this, mind you. It’s really that – as far as we can tell – nobody has ever bothered to write an article on this issue, and we think the real information should be available somewhere on the internet.

Oh, and if you’re looking for tricks to reduce your calorie intake from alcohol, here’s something the government PSAs really don’t want you to know: You can either drink less or, when you drink, consume it as fast as possible. Your body will see the alcohol for the toxin it is and try to get it out as fast as possible. We obviously don’t advocate this, we just thought our Certified Meadiacs should know the facts.

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