Is Alcohol the New Soda?

New government research appears likely to help activists impose more restrictions on alcohol.


Last week a new study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that American adults drink alcoholic beverages in moderation.

Calories from alcohol, the study concludes, make up 5 percent of the total calories consumed by American adults. What's more, few Americans consume alcohol on a daily basis.

"On any given day, almost one-third of men and 18% of women aged 20 and over consume alcoholic beverages," the report concludes. That means just one in four Americans consume alcohol on any given day.

And the group the report indicates as ingesting the largest amount of calories from alcohol—men aged 20-39—consume only 174 calories per day (8 percent of total average calories) from alcohol beverages. That's fewer calories than two average light beers.

In spite of these modest totals, the study authors appear to be positioning their work as an important warning against alcohol consumption.

"I think sometimes people forget completely that alcoholic beverages have calories," lead study author and public-health theologist Samara Joy Nielsen told The New York Times.

The study authors are also explicit in linking alcohol to soda—that other scourge of public-health activists—at least in terms of the calories it contributes to Americans' diets.

"We've been focusing on sugar-sweetened beverages," said Cynthia Ogden, one of the study's authors who, like Nielsen, has been doing just that. "This is something new."

But if the focus of these particular researchers is new, little in their research contributes any new knowledge.

The CDC alcohol study, "Calories Consumed From Alcoholic Beverages by U.S. Adults, 2007–2010," uses data from the agency's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which "combines interviews and physical examinations."

The most comprehensive source I've come across (and referred to recently here) for uncovering what Americans are eating and drinking—including alcohol—is the USDA's Dietary Guidelines for Americans, last updated in 2010. And if this CDC alcohol study doesn't appear so new, perhaps it's because the "new" study cites the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans in nearly half (43 percent) of its footnotes.

Not surprisingly, the two studies' conclusions about how many calories Americans consume from alcohol are also nearly identical. USDA data put the number at 106 calories from alcohol (see Table 2-2 on page 12). The CDC study's total is similar but slightly lower—99 calories.

While the USDA study concludes that "alcoholic beverages are a major calorie source for adults," the CDC calls them "a top contributor to caloric intake."

One place where the studies diverge—and where the CDC authors don't address what I see as a key issue—is the fact that the average alcohol consumption patterns their research reveal actually mirror longstanding USDA recommendations.

"If alcohol is consumed, it should be consumed in moderation—up to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men—and only by adults of legal drinking age," reports the USDA in the same Dietary Guidelines for Americans that the CDC researchers know so well. "Moderate evidence suggests that moderate drinking of alcoholic beverages is not associated with weight gain."

Remember, even the group of heaviest drinkers the CDC reported—men aged 20-39—consume on average less than the equivalent of two typical light beers worth of calories on any given day.

In spite of the fact alcohol consumption appears to be both moderate and in line with the government's own recommendations, some activists have already begun seizing on the CDC study as a possible trigger for future regulations to limit alcohol intake. And they're suggesting government strategies to combat soda consumption as a model.

"In New York City, it was smart to start with sugary drinks," says Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, while stamping out my own meager and short-lived hope that CSPI was embracing a new style of advocacy. "Let's see how it goes and then think about next steps."

I shudder to think where those next steps might take us.

The question activists used to ask was, "Is soda the new tobacco?" Clearly, the answer to that question was and is, "No." But the new question the CDC research appears positioned to pose is whether alcohol is the new soda.