By Amanda Berger
Anyone who has wandered the alcohol aisle of their local grocery or liquor store recently has seen that consumers have an incredible number of drink choices these days. Beyond beer, wine and spirits, there are now a variety of "ready-to-drink" (RTD) beverages: malt-based hard seltzers, wine-based flavored spritzers, canned or pre-mixed cocktails, and more.
These options have taken off in popularity in recent years, as consumers looked to recreate a bar or restaurant experience in the comfort of their own home or backyard during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But, while more options are great for consumers, these RTD products come in a range of sizes and alcohol content, and it is not always the case that one container equals one serving. This makes understanding the definition of a "standard drink" critically important.
Yet, a new survey conducted in April for the Distilled Spirits Council by Public Opinion Strategies, a leading opinion research firm, indicates that nearly 9 out of 10 adults in the U.S. (88%) do not know that a standard drink of beer or wine has the same amount of alcohol as a standard drink of distilled spirits, such as whisky, vodka, or rum. That is a problem for anyone who cares about public health and safety.
According to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which guides federal nutrition policy in the United States, one standard drink or "drink equivalent" contains 0.6 ounces of alcohol. Examples of standard drinks include 12 fluid ounces of regular beer at 5% alcohol, 5 fluid ounces of wine at 12% alcohol, 1.5 fluid ounces of distilled spirits at 40% alcohol, or 12 fluid ounces of an RTD at 5% alcohol.
Each of these contain the same amount of ethanol, the pure alcohol that is in all beverage alcohol, and research has shown that the effects of ethanol on the body are the same, regardless of whether it is in distilled spirits, wine, or beer products.
This standard drink definition is used throughout the federal government, including by all leading public health agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). As the CDC explains: "it is the amount of alcohol consumed that affects a person most, not the type."
Statements and policies that suggest beer and wine should be treated differently than spirits send a dangerous message that some forms of alcohol are "softer" than others. That is simply not the case. And it is also not the case that all spirits products have higher alcohol by volume (ABV) than other alcohol products. For example, many craft beers now contain 7%, 9%, or even as high as 28% ABV. Meanwhile, there are many canned/pre-mixed cocktails in the marketplace with alcohol levels at 5% ABV or less.
The importance of this issue was reinforced in July, with the release of a new global research study published in The Lancet, which looked at the potential benefits and risks associated with alcohol consumption.
The study, conducted by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, found that globally, there are significant variations in potential health effects with different levels of consumption; and it underscored the need for alcohol recommendations that are tailored to specific regions and populations. Here in the U.S., the Dietary Guidelines for Americans define moderate drinking as two standard drinks or less in a day for men and one drink or less in a day for women, and state that some adults should not drink at all.
The clearly defined standard drink amounts contained in the Dietary Guidelines serve as a reference point to help consumers determine how much alcohol they are consuming and assist them in following these recommendations.
The distilled spirits sector is committed to doing its part to get this information to consumers. The Distilled Spirits Council has long partnered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to disseminate the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines and has also recently launched a consumer site, StandardDrinks.org, which includes an interactive calculator to input the volume and the ABV of a beverage to see how it measures up to one standard drink.
There have never been more choices for adult beverage alcohol consumers, and that is a great thing. But knowing the amount of alcohol in your drink and how it relates to a standard drink is the key to responsible consumption - not whether your drink is made from malt, sugar cane, grapes, or grains.
Dr. Amanda Berger is Vice President for Science and Health at the Distilled Spirits Council.