The agency described today's ruling as an "interim policy," pending more formal and broader policy. Under the ruling, beverages must have below 7 grams of carbohydrates per serving to qualify to be called "low carb." The bureau also defined how the serving size should be calculated, which could affect some brands that have been claiming low-carb status.
Brands that don't qualify as "low carb" can be advertised as "reduced carbohydrate" or as having "lower carbohydrates," provided labeling and advertising provides a comparison to the normal brand's level.
"Any labeling or advertising statement that implies that consumption of the product has health effects will be evaluated ... and will be considered to be in violation of these regulations if it is false or if it tends to mislead consumers by presenting materially incomplete information about the health effects of alcohol consumption," the bureau said, adding that even humorous ads will get scrutiny.
While today's action was limited to alcoholic beverages, the Food and Drug Administration is considering a petition from the Grocery Manufacturers of America to set a standard for low-carb claims in foods.
Bans weight-loss claims
Today's ruling, meanwhile, bans even implied claims that low-carb products may play a healthy role in a weight maintenance or weight reduction. The agency said it was concerned that health claims showing up in ads "are misleading."
"Representations that imply that alcohol beverages may be part of a weight maintenance or weight loss plan, or that consumers may drink more of such beverages because of their low calories or carbohydrate content, mislead consumers by presenting incomplete information about the health effects of nutritional content of alcohol beverages," said the ruling.
The bureau said it will evaluate claims one by one, but the guidance hinted that some current ads will get immediate attention.
For instance, the ruling could affect how Anheuser-Busch market's its low-carb brew, Michelob Ultra. TV ads tend to show fit men and women enjoying a bottle of Michelob Ultra after finishing their strenuous workouts.
"We make no health claims in our ads," said Joe Jedlicka, vice president of legal and state affairs for Anheuser-Busch. "We have ongoing discussions with the TTB, as do other industry members, because TTB is the regulating agency that oversees our industry. We express our opinions to them, and to other regulators, on matters of importance. Seven grams of carbs per serving certainly is a low number, and our best selling beer, Bud Light, falls below that level." Bud Light has 6.6 grams of carbs.
Alcohol industry spokesmen did not return calls for comment.
George Hacker, director of alcohol policy for the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest, praised the ruling.
"They are moving in the right direction," he said. "The implication is that the agency will start looking more carefully and labeling and advertising claims."