Big Alcohol Makes a Play for the Health Food Crowd

By Dirk Hanson 07/12/11

But squeezing some strawberry in your vodka or vitamin B12 in your gin, doesn't exactly qualify hard liquor as healthy...

For toasts to a long life only.
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Packaged foods advertise themselves as healthy, and cigarettes ads have historically shown photos of glowing young people engaged in hearty outdoor pursuits. Now the alcoholic beverage industry is upping its own participation in the whole health thing. The Marin Institute, Big Alcohol’s least favorite advocacy group in the world, just released its new study: “Questionable Health Claims by Alcohol Companies: From Protein Vodka to Weight-Loss Beer.” Frankly, those sound to us like can’t-miss marketing propositions. “The wine industry has been exaggerating wine’s health benefits for years. Now Big Alcohol is taking such messages to a whole new level,” said Marin Institute’s Research and Policy Director Michele Simon, one of the report’s authors. “Major alcohol companies are exploiting ineffective or non-existent regulatory oversight,” she added, noting that loaded words like “infusion” and “all-natural” remain undefined by the US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), the agency now in charge of regulating alcoholic beverages.

How exactly do you make pitch alcohol as a health food? Snack and wine manufacturers have been playing this game brilliantly for years. Alcohol industry efforts have been awkward, it’s fair to say. So the new pitches are zeroing in more directly on what the Marin Institute seems to believe is, uh, deceptive advertising. What are some examples of the kind of behavior that gets the Institute so riled up? Oh, things like Fragoli strawberry liqueur emphasizing its antioxidant benefits, or Finlandia vodka’s claim of being “infused with natural flavors.” The report says that retailers in Los Angeles advertise Lotus Vodka as a “Vitamin B Enhanced Super Premium Vodka.” However, since alcohol is known to inhibit the absorption of nutrients like Vitamin B1 and B12, Dr. R. Curtis Ellison at the Boston University Medical School says that putting B12 in alcohol is “like putting vitamins in cigarettes.” As the report says: “Ad campaigns for these products included claims that defy science and common sense. Using terms like ‘vitamin B enhanced,’ ‘antioxidant nutrients,’ and ‘all-natural,’ combined with images of fruit or young athletes running or cycling, these products are promoted as logical compliments to a healthy, fitness-oriented lifestyle, without a hint of irony.”  We get that, but are they saying that vodka is not all natural?

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]