Guest Opinion: What's in that drink? We need alcohol-labeling laws to tell
There is a relatively new drink on the market. It's called "four Loko" and it is especially popular with young people.
It's advertised as a "caffeinated alcoholic beverage" and comes in a 23.5-ounce can in a variety of fruit flavors, such as watermelon, lemonade and blue raspberry. They begin to taste like harmless sodas.
What most consumers may not know is that one "four Loko" drink contains almost five standard drinks. Five!
For several years I've been giving presentations on alcohol-related issues to a wide variety of groups in the Menlo Park/Palo Alto area and statewide. My main topic was sharing 21st century brain research, especially new findings and science-based answers on why and how alcohol affects the brain and what it is that causes a person to lose control of their drinking.
Time and again, attendees — especially young people — are struck by one of the reasons: measuring alcohol consumption is less about the number of glasses than it is about the number of "standard drinks" in each glass.
A standard drink is usually 5 ounces of table wine, 12 ounces of regular beer, 3.3 ounces of champagne or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits. Thus, a Long Island Iced Tea at one location could contain two or three standard drinks; a vodka on the rocks at another could put a woman into the binge-drinking category; and a "four Loko," well. ...
Additionally, most people do not know what "safe" or "moderate" drinking is all about. No labels; no wonder.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism identifies safe or moderate drinking limits as follows:
For women, seven standard drinks in a week, with no more than three per day.
For men, 14 in a week with no more than four per day.
The weekly-limit recommendation is to help with dietary health (not that a person needs to drink, but if they do ...). One standard drink contains about 100 calories and few if any nutrients. The second number is to help a person avoid binge drinking — the kind of drinking that causes a person to lose control of their thinking and engage in drinking behaviors, such as driving while under the influence; having unprotected or unwanted sex; getting into fights with a loved one over how much they've had to drink; or starting a fight for a really dumb reason.
Binge drinking is defined as four or more standard drinks on an occasion for women and five or more for men.
Why four and five? The reason is that alcohol enters the bloodstream through the wall of the small intestine. Because alcohol dissolves in water, the bloodstream carries it throughout the body (which is 60 percent to 70 percent water) where it is absorbed into body tissue in proportion to the body tissue's water content.
Alcohol leaves the body through the liver, for the most part. As a very general rule of thumb, it takes the liver about an hour to metabolize the alcohol in one standard drink; four hours for four drinks, and so on.
The brain is mostly water, and it controls everything we think, feel, say and do. When a person drinks more alcohol than their liver can metabolize, the excess alcohol stays in the bloodstream and suppresses certain brain functions. This is why a person can find him/herself engaging in the drinking behaviors previously mentioned.
Even if a person appears as if s/he can "hold their liquor," the impact is still happening. It still takes their liver about one hour to metabolize one drink; eight hours to metabolize eight drinks.
So, can instituting a standard drink-labeling program change drinking behaviors? Likely.
Can we afford not to do something that would cost so little yet potentially accomplish so much? No.
Think about it. We know how many grams of sugar are in a soft drink container and how many calories are in a serving of pasta. We can read the USDA food pyramid on most food product labels. But most of us are not sure how much alcohol is in a drink.
And while the FDA requires we get the nitty-gritty on food contents in the form of a standard label, nowhere can we find out how many "standard drinks" are in our drinks or whether the same drink at another location is really the same.
If it's important enough to tell consumers about grams of sugar and calories it should be equally important to tell them about their alcohol intake. A lifetime of excess calories may impact a person's health measurably, but one trip behind the wheel or engaging in any of the other embarrassing, hurtful or dangerous behaviors that can occur after too many drinks could adversely and instantaneously change that person's and someone's else's life forever.
We need legislation that expands existing alcoholic-beverage labels to include the number of standard drinks per serving and per container. The law also should require restaurants and bars do the same on their menus.
Sure, it will mean all bartenders have to pour their drinks as their establishment has labeled them; just like packaged food-serving contents must meet their labels.
And yes, some people won't want to know how much they're drinking — just like some people don't want to know how many calories are in the bag of chips they eat.
But with a standard-drink label, the person who wants to keep it to a "couple of drinks" can decide whether to split the "four Loko" with a friend or drink a 24-ounce can of regular beer, instead.
Lisa Frederiksen is a Menlo Park resident and a researcher, writer, speaker and consultant specializing in alcohol-related issues. She is finishing her eighth book, "Loved One in Treatment? Now What!" and writes a blog, www.breakingthecycles.com. She can be e-mailed at lisaf@BreakingTheCycles.com.