It’s no secret that young people in Australia and around the world are abandoning the booze. Alcohol companies, fearing a drop in their profits, are having to rapidly pivot to route some of that escaping market. One of the most popular methods for doing so involves the marketing of RTDs as healthier options.
RTDs — or ‘ready to drink’, premixed beverages that often come in cans — are increasingly being sold with nutritional and health claims in an effort to appeal to the wellness-conscious generation. A new study has found that over half the drinks in this category come with such labels, prompting calls for regulators to step in and “take urgent action to restrict claims.”
“In the wake of growing awareness and overwhelming evidence about the negative health impacts of drinking, the alcohol industry is using nutrition messaging to give their products a health halo,” Professor Simone Pettigrew from The George Institute for Global Health has said.
“It’s a tactic borrowed from the food industry that’s particularly targeted at young people, who are more health conscious”.
The new study, published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health by The George Institute, assessed more than 500 pre-mixed drinks from Australia’s three biggest alcohol retailers. They found that 52% of them made at least one nutrition-related claim.
The most common claims mentioned the ‘naturalness’ of the product, the ‘energy’ content, and the sugar content. Others spoke of being gluten-free, low in carbs, or being vegan.
“Some 96% of hard seltzers, which are predominately targeted at younger drinkers, included nutrition claims, with an average of 3.4 claims per product. They also frequently appeared on vodka pre-mixed products (44%) and gin-mixed beverages (40%),” said Bella Sträuli, lead author of the study.
Pettigrew argues that it’s not too late for regulators to act on the “misleading’ claims.
“Pre-mixed alcohol producers are taking advantage of the current Australian alcohol labelling code to use nutrition-related claims to promote these products in ways likely to enhance their perceived healthiness while downplaying alcohol health risks,” he said.
“We urgently need more stringent regulation of claims on alcohol to avoid consumers being blatantly misled. There is a window of opportunity to shut this down before it gets out of hand.”
Are RTD Drinks Healthier?
Alcohol is inherently unhealthy, regardless of the format it comes in. While RTDs often make appeals to health, the reality is that they often aren’t.
A US survey from 2020 found that 66% of millennials said they were often or always swayed by health claims when picking an alcoholic drink.
RTDs, which used to be associated with soft drinks and spirit mixers, were typically seen as sugar-filled and unhealthy. Alcohol companies know this and the recent marketing shift to ‘sugar-free’ and ‘healthier’ marketing is all part of the game.
“I do think people perceive these as ‘better or you’, especially these ones that are soda-based,” New Zealand nutritionist Claire Turnbull said in 2020.
“But not that many translate into the same calories as a soda and spirit drink you’d mix yourself at home as many use fruit juice to sweeten them.
“Some are fractionally lower in calories [than wine or beer], most are similar and some are a lot more.”
A standard 5% 330ml beer, or a standard 180ml glass of wine, comes in at around 120 calories. Most gin or vodka-based RTDs work out to 100-120 calories. While claims about being low-calorie or sugar-free may be inaccurate, further health-related claims appear to be simply laughable.
“Some are just a sham,” Pettigrew said.
“For instance, we found vegan and gluten claims on products that are inherently animal product and gluten-free”.
A 2019 review of the Australian market by Public Health Research & Practice identified the trend towards healthier marketing stretching back to 2016. That review noted that regulations around nutritional claims are loosely defined and rarely enforced.
“Existing regulations do not appear to be sufficient to effectively restrict health-related claims from being made by alcohol producers and marketers,” the review found.
“Restrictions on the use of health-related concepts should form part of [a] broader reform to alcohol marketing regulation”.
Adjunct Professor Terry Slevin, CEO Public Health Association of Australia, has said that the health-based marketing strategy is a sign of an irresponsible industry desperately trying to ensure Australians continue to drink.
“There is no safe level of alcohol use, and it has no nutritional benefit. There isn’t a healthy alcohol option. Regardless of product type, all alcohol is a carcinogen, and alcohol is associated with significant physical and psycho-social harms,” he said.
“Grog continues to be one of Australia’s biggest public health challenges. We need comprehensive Government action, not only restricting nutrition claims on labels, but also minimum alcohol pricing, awareness campaigns, strict warning label requirements and restrictions on alcohol advertising to protect children.”