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Don’t buy fear and ignorance: on beers that make health claims

I received a sample of Drinkwell IPA over the weekend. It came in a very smelly box — really stinky ink — but that’s not why I want to write about it.

There also seemed to be some confusion between the packaging and the PR over whether this beer was called Drinkwell IPA, or Heracles IPA, or some combination of the two. But that isn’t why I want to write about it either.

The marketing blurb on the packaging included some rather odd claims, not least this line:

“This is innovation at its finest, and finally something the beer industry can be proud of.”

DrinkWell (formerly SkinnyBooze)

That’s clumsy at best. If I were a brewer I imagine I’d find it insulting and pretty arrogant (or perhaps hubristic, if we’re carrying on the Greek theme). But still that’s not why I want to write about it.

I want to write about it because of the main thrust of the beer’s marketing, which is that here ‘at last’ is a low-calorie IPA that I can enjoy without fearing for my waistband.

Now low-calorie beers are nothing new. I wrote about them back in 2019 and they weren’t new then, either. But one thing hasn’t changed: the marketing of beer using health claims doesn’t sit right with me.

Counting calories

The press release says Drinkwell IPA contains 35% fewer calories than “other IPAs”. What they don’t mention is that the average strength of an IPA is around 6% ABV, compared to their 4.1%. So sure, you can find a higher-ABV beer that has more calories then point to it and shout ‘mine has less’. But Drinkwell is comparing apples with oranges, while at the same time insinuating that the basket is in fact 100% apples. Not cool.

Let’s compare like with like for a true picture: according to Drinkaware’s online calorie calculator a pint of 4% beer is 182 calories. That works out to 106 calories per 330ml. Drinkwell is making a big noise about its “lower calorie” 4.1% IPA, which contains 99 calories per 330ml. Are you impressed by that 7 calorie difference? Because I’m not.

And here’s another thing that I found a bit underhanded: Drinkwell say in their press release “research shows that 80% of the public is unaware of the calorie content of common drinks and many typically underestimate the true content.” Reading that it sounds like a lot of people — most people, even — think that beer has fewer calories than it actually does.

If you follow the links to the original source of this claim, an RSPH study from 2014, you will find the actual quote is “over 80% of people did not know or underestimated the number of calories in a large glass of wine“. (Emphasis mine.)

For a pint of lager, that figure drops to 60%. And even then it’s a very woolly claim. How many of the 60% were underestimating? Could be 59%, could be 1%. We just don’t know.

However we do know from a 2012 study that most people in fact overestimate the number of calories in beer, with women more likely to do so than men. Pete Brown blogged about this at the time.

I once did WeightWatchers, and a pint of ale has the same points value as a naked baked potato with no filling, no butter, nothing.

Pete Brown

So Drinkwell is pushing their beer based on some rather shaky claims and insinuations, the basic premise being that most beer is bad for you but theirs is not. Or perhaps just that theirs is ‘less bad’ — let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.

The marketing is designed to play on people’s fear and ignorance. Fear that they will become (or remain) fat through drinking beer. And ignorance as to how many calories are in an average beer, and how Drinkwell actually compares to other beers out there.

Beer is not a health drink

Beer is not healthy. OK? Can we agree on that? It doesn’t have to be bad for you either. If you drink in moderation you will be fine. You may even have a lower risk of heart disease. On the other hand, regularly drinking too much beer is undeniably bad for you, and possibly also for those around you. This is why I am never comfortable with the dodgy nature of using health claims to sell beer.

So, after all that, does this Drinkwell IPA taste any good?

Meh.