Thursday, December 16, 2004

Ingredient labeling: Is there an Issue?

This article is just begging to be deconstructed...

Wine Labels: Decorative, Not Informative
By Roger Voss

Why should wine continue to escape the ingredient labeling that is obligatory for all other food products? The winemaker could be concocting a devil's brew or the nectar of the gods for all we know.

A few years ago, I made a study of the additives that are used in wine. They were products any wine lover would be familiar with - oak chips, acid, sugar, concentrated grape must, sulphur, coloring agents, oxygen. There was nothing illegal about any of them.
Okay - so what's the problem?

So why are American consumers not told about these additives? After all, they are told about sulphur (and almost every wine has some sulphur added somewhere along the line if only to keep the grapes clean when they are picked). But anything else that goes into the wine, apart from the grapes and the water, remains a mystery.
Sulfites (sulfur) are disclosed because there may be consumers with asthma, or otherwise sensitive to SO2 (sulfur dioxide) and sulfites who could have a life-threatening reaction to them. Some enzymes (proteins) are allowed under law, but these compounds shouldn't be in the final product at anything more than a trace level, if even detectable at all. In general, the balance of the other additives are naturally found in the fruit, it's just their concentration that's adjusted.

If producers are not required to admit to additives, it is almost like dispensing a license for them to practice underhanded activities. There was such an incident this past fall: South African Sauvignon Blanc producers, in an attempt to make their wines taste more like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, had illegally added gooseberry essence.
Reality check - it was already illegal before they made the additions. Another regulation for ingredient disclosure wouldn't have stopped these people; they obviously didn't give a damn about the law as it was. This is just a straw-man argument.

Why should wine continue to escape the ingredient labeling that is obligatory for all other food products? If there was such an obligation to list the contents, we would be able to make more informed judgments about a wine.
While I don't disagree with the notion that ingredient labeling would be interesting information to have, I feel I must point out that wine is not generally considered as a food (meaning a source of nutrition and energy).

Afterall, that's what the food labeling laws were designed to communicate to consumers - what the nutritive values of their foods were.

Some of the biggest-selling brands make use of the fact that sugar can hide cheap wine.
That's an easy claim to to name names? In the US, it is legal, and any sweetening of wine would have to be done in accordance with the Code of Federal Regulations. See these if you are interested:

Sugar defined 27CFR24.10
Chaptalization 27CFR24.177
Sweetening 27CFR24.179
Concentrate 27CFR24.180

The difference is that, if we care to read the small print, we can determine how much sugar is in the chips or the bun.
It would be useful if one was trying to find a certain level of sweetness or dryness to match with a certain occasion.
Other than that it may be of use to diabetics, or those watching their waistlines...
But let's be real about it, if you're consuming so much wine that you have to become concerned about it's caloric value, then I'd think you have a bigger problem at hand (e.g. liver failure)...

But a wine can be presented as dry, when it obviously is not.
Who's presenting it as dry? It's his assumption that it's sweet or dry if the label doesn't state it. Most products don't state that they're dry or sweet at all. And even then dryness is relative to the person who's tasting it, and can be rather subjective at the lower levels. (The wine industry generally considers a wine to be "dry" if it's sugar level is 2.0 ~ 3.0 grams per liter.)

It's not the practices I necessarily object to. I don't mind if oak chips are used instead of barrel aging if the taste of the wine works for me. I don't mind the addition of acidity, common in Australia, if the result is a wine that is bright and fresh at the end. What I do object to is the way winemakers want to give wine drinkers the impression that their beautiful product is as pure as driven snow, that it is just packed with fresh grapes and nothing else.
So, It's the prisitne image that he's really upset about.

There are welcome signs that the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (shortened to Tax and Trade Bureau, or TTB), which regulates the labeling and advertising of wine, recognizes the need for more transparency, at least on the carbohydrate and caloric contents of wine. They have issued a ruling about caloric and carbohydrate claims on alcoholic beverages. And they are planning to allow a 'serving facts' panel on labels, which would cover serving sizes, servings per container, calories, fluid ounces of alcohol and grams of fat, carbohydrates and protein.
I believe the ruling would allow voluntary labeling, not mandatory labeling. It's a marketing tool, along the lines of the 'Atkins Diet' craze of a year ago (suddenly people were marketing 'reduced carbohydrate' products of every conceivable description - we'd just be subjected to advertising along the lines of the 'lite beer' producers).

But these regulations and proposals don't cover those pesky additives. They remain as secret as before. The signing into law this year of the Food Allergen and Consumer Protection Act, which will take effect in 2006, really does nothing to address the issue, unless any traces of egg white fining have to be identified.
Which begs the question - "Is there really an issue here?" Apparently, the lawmakers didn't see an issue there to address.

Finally, he finishes with the following:
Generally, wine producers have much less to hide than manufacturers of processed foods. Most wine is what we imagine it to be - fermented grape juice. Wine is more tightly controlled in its origins than any foodstuff. Yes, cheaper wines are often more 'manufactured' than more expensive ones. But I still believe that even inexpensive wine is more authentic, more genuine and purer than many of the contents of the supermarket freezer section.
And so I'm led back to my original query...

Okay - so what's the problem?



Blogger Christian said...

Right on, Huge. I was about to take this one on, but you said what needs to be said.

Keep it up.

December 16, 2004 6:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

January 01, 2005 12:08 PM  
Blogger Huge said...

Knickers to those trying to plug their own wine shops!
I'll delete it everytime I see it...

January 04, 2005 1:37 PM  
Anonymous JP said...

Someone told me that it is illegal to label ingredients on wine. Is this the case, or have they simply got the wrong end of the stick and, in actual fact, it is just that it is not a legal requirement to label ingredients on wines? Apparently the Co-op does label the ingredients on its own wines.

August 18, 2005 8:27 AM  

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