Beer mats research aims to raise alcohol awareness

By Fred A'Court

- Last updated on GMT

Font of knowledge: beer mats offer information to drinkers
Font of knowledge: beer mats offer information to drinkers
Bristol University is on a drive to make alcohol awareness more visual and creative - and it is using the beer mat to do it.

The mats highlight ‘How Many Units Are You Drinking?’ and ‘How Many Calories Are You Drinking?’ topics with colourful graphics detailing low-risk and daily intake guidelines.

In the early stages of a research project that may eventually enrol the help of big breweries, the university has so far printed six versions of the mats.

Bristol University senior research associate Anna Blackwell said: “Six different mats show lower and higher strength beer, a cider, medium or large versions of wine, and a vodka and tonic as examples of what you could do, and also to show how they vary in terms of the number of calories and units.”

She said there are endless possibilities of what can be put on the mats and they could be branded.

Beer mat versions tested

It is the early stages of the research and, so far, some 250 versions of each mat has been printed.

Both the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) and UKHospitality (UKH) said it welcomed measures that provide relevant, factual information. The BBPA added that on-pack guidelines that also direct consumers to online details provide a balanced approach while UKH warns against any ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach or simplification of complex information.

Although the alcohol education charity Drinkaware publishes easily presented and understood alcoholic unit information on its website, information on product labels is often small and on the back. Most people are served drinks in pubs and clubs by the glass anyway, without information. The beer mats would put the information up front, Blackwell said.

Dual body funding

The mats have been developed as part of a larger programme of work funded by the Medical Research Council and Alcohol Research UK, which aims to explore how alcohol labels can improve understanding of alcohol and its potential risks.

So far, research has involved questioning some 4,000 people across a broad range of consumers and smaller independent breweries.

Blackwell said that what surprised her most is just how limited people's knowledge on alcohol intake is.

“People's knowledge of units and calories is pretty limited,” she said. “There been a lot of public support for the provision of additional information. People do seem to want to know about this.

“Some of the interesting things we’ve found is that only half of the people that drink every week think that reducing the amount they drink will actually improve their health. Of people drinking above that level, only one in three are confident that they could drink less.”

Public grants

The university is hoping to get grants from public research funding bodies and, perhaps, the Government for further research and to see if the mats can be rolled out in pubs.

“This is definitely not supposed to be about not going to the pub or not going out,” Blackwell said. “It's about giving people information so that if they want to make choices then they have that information.”

Any major rollout of the beer mats would have to be looked at, Blackwell said. ”Making them mandatory would be something that would need to be explored. In the first instance it would be voluntary,” he explained.

The university has not approached any of the big breweries or pub chains yet but would do so at some stage. Blackwell said that the main concerns of smaller independent breweries contacted were on how the information would be presented on the mats.

The research is being led by Professor Marcus Munafo at the University of Bristol School of Experimental Psychology.

Informed decisions 

BBPA chief executive Brigid Simmonds said it is important that people are able to make informed decisions about their drinks so anything that helps to provide relevant and factual consumer information in a consistent form is welcome. 

"The majority of beers sold in the UK already carry unit information on the pack, and as part of an ongoing voluntary European brewing industry pledge in response to a review by the European Commission of the rules for provision of ingredients and nutritional information for alcohol beverages. Almost three quarters of beers sold in the UK will soon have calorie information on pack or online. 

“BBPA members also support Drinkaware and promote its website, which provides consumers with a full range of up-to-date health information for a range of alcohol beverages that includes calories and unit information.

“Online platforms also offer a way to communicate complex information to consumers in an engaging, informative and accessible way that is not always possible on product packaging.

“We feel this is a balanced approach that gives producers the option of printing the guidelines on product labels or signalling ongoing support for health and lifestyle information by directing consumers to the Drinkaware website.”

UKH chief executive Kate Nicholls also welcomed measures to promote the responsible consumption of alcohol but warned: “We should, however, be wary of a one-size-fits-all approach that discounts the many sizes and strengths of alcoholic drinks and simplifies complex customer behaviour regarding calories.”

Related topics: Health & safety

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