Arnica Rowan thinks wine producers are missing an increasingly important trick. Image (not Dr Siobhan Key mentioned in this article) by Zach Vessels courtesy of Unsplash.com.
Food trends inevitably have a deep impact on the wines people choose to drink. The rush to produce big tannic Cabs coincided with the protein-based Dr Atkins diet popular in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Today vegan wines are becoming easier to find, due to the rise of climate consciousness and plant-based eating.
However, today’s fastest-growing global diet trend has largely been ignored by the wine world.
According to Google Trends, 48.6% of the UK’s nutrition and diet searches from 1 February 2020 to 31 January 2021 were related to the ketogenic diet. Compare that with the Cambridge or Mediterranean diets, representing less than 2% each of UK diet searches. (1) In the same time frame, in the United States, ‘keto wine’ was searched as often as ‘natural wine’, 34% more often than ‘organic wine’, six times more than ‘low alcohol wine’ and 30 times more often than ‘sustainable wine’. (2) Yet you would be hard-pressed to find the term keto on a shelf tag or a wine label in North America or the UK.
To the uninitiated, the terms keto and its less-strict cousin ‘low-carb’ may seem ambiguous, but the diet is simple to understand. Low-carb eating avoids sugar and foods with other carbohydrates, such as pasta, bread and potatoes, focusing instead on consuming calories from proteins and fats.
On a keto diet sugars of all kinds are even more verboten. This much stricter approach avoids carbohydrates to the degree that the body stops gaining energy from carbs and switches into the metabolic state of ketosis, seeking energy from stored fats instead. Long-term low-carb or keto approaches to eating also emphasise heavy consumption of vegetables, especially leafy greens, so that micro- and macro-nutrient needs are met. (Needless to say, you should consult your doctor before adopting any diet; this is an article about wine, not medical advice.)
Although the entire category of hard seltzers was built on the back of the keto craze, the wine industry has been mostly unresponsive. An exception is Dry Farm Wines of California. Wildly successful, the wine club has been built on recommendations by high-profile nutritionists, doctors and personal trainers. To aid their health-focused customers, the company publishes the grams of sugar per litre for each bottle and sells only wines that are essentially sugar-free, at less than 0.15 g/glass. This information is crucial for health-conscious wine lovers who are avoiding sugar; yet, with few exceptions, you’d be hard-pressed to find sugar or any other nutritional analysis on the vast majority of wine bottles. (Read Jancis’s update on which suggests this information may become mandatory – eventually.)
Perhaps wine producers are ignoring these ways of eating as a passing phase, soon to be gone by the time their reds come out of barrel. However, a key difference between these and other diet trends is that low-carb eating has been catalysed by opinion leaders in the medical establishment. Low-carb diets are among the approaches studied in certain health conditions that are prevalent in Western society, such as diabetes. (3,4) Once a diet becomes a medical nutrition therapy, listed in a standard of care, it starts to be referenced by medical manuals and journals – and it’s around for a long time.
It’s worth considering that the average family physician in the UK might potentially influence more than 2,000 people and their health decisions each year. (5) Doctors’ health recommendations are affecting a lot of people’s wine choices, including mine, in a powerful cycle of influence that is completely separate from nudges from the wine trade and wine media. It’s time for the wine industry to listen to the medical establishment (if they know what’s good for them) and make it easy for those on low-carb diets to find and enjoy their wines.
Dr Siobhan Key is the overachiever’s overachiever, with three specialties – in emergency, palliative care and obesity medicine – and a string of marathons under her belt. She’s also the host of Weight Solutions for Physicians, an internationally respected podcast that helps doctors trying to live a healthy lifestyle, and she’s a respected force in the low-carb physician community. I reached her by phone in Prince George, 800 km (500 miles) north of Vancouver.
‘Typically, a physician first tries a low-carb or keto diet on themselves. If it works to meet their health goals, then they’ll recommend it to their patients’, explained Dr Key. ‘Five years ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find doctors prescribing low-carb eating, but now it’s quite commonplace.’
I was curious what Dr Key thought about drinking wine on a low-carb diet such as the one she follows herself. ‘Wine certainly can be part of living a healthy lifestyle, as long as consumption is in moderation’, she commented. ‘Low-carb eating is a way of life and it’s meant to be long-term. To maintain a healthy eating plan over the long term, you need to include foods and drinks you enjoy. When I’m coaching other physicians, I recommend they include pleasurable, satisfying foods and drinks in their diets, as long as they fit within their eating plan. Personally, I love wine, so it’s planned into my lifestyle.’
According to Dr Key, if you are eating low-carb or keto, the most important component to pay attention to is sugar in the wine. The good news is that any wine – white, red, rosé or orange – that is completely fermented dry will qualify as sugar-free since the sugars have already been converted into alcohol by the yeast.
Wines to avoid are delectable, but certainly not sugar-free, fortified sweet wines, late-harvest and icewines, off-dry acidic whites, and sweet vermouths … Anything that is off the daily consumption list. Which is OK, because if you are eating keto or low-carb, you probably aren’t eating that much dessert anyway. Sigh!
However, the trickier arena is table wines that people assume are dry but are really not. This applies to many of the most successful commercial brands and is why I wish there were more honesty in wine labelling.
For example, a glass of juicy, purple Argentine Malbec may be fermented completely dry, but just as often has 10–30 g/l residual sugar per bottle. (6) That sugar is used to balance out the ripe blue fruits in the wine, or simply to cater to taste preferences. Don’t think I’m picking on Malbec. I’d like to point out that there is nothing inherently wrong with wine with residual sugar, just as there is nothing inherently wrong with a gorgeous glass of port or other delicious sweet drinks such as . They just aren’t the right daily choice for someone who is eating low-carb.
If you manage to see a doctor in these pandemic-restricted times, and your doctor has recommended that you eat a low-carb or ketogenic diet, here are some tips for enjoying wines that help you eat according to your plan:
- Chose wines that you, someone you know, or a retailer can attest to being completely dry.
- Avoid the cheapest wines on the bottom shelf, as often bulk wine producers will add sugar to make up for a lack of complexity or interest in a wine.
- Check labels for verbal clues: avoid the terms sweet, off-dry, honeyed, luscious.
- If wine does have nutritional labelling – yipee! – check how many carbohydrates are in a serving and cross reference with the serving size. For example, if you are drinking one of five glasses in a 750-ml bottle of wine with 20 g/l sugar, you are consuming 3 g of sugar, which equates to 3 g carbohydrates – well below the 20–50 g daily carbohydrate limit for a ketogenic diet. (7)
- Some retailers have sweetness codes or numerical references on shelves, but exercise caution here. Usually these numbers are based merely on what the producer has told the retailer, can be fudged, and frequently are. Notable exceptions are the big government monopoly retailers such as the (LCBO) in Canada and the . They actually do lab testing on every bottle that comes into their system, and their websites can be a great resource for low-carb wine drinkers globally. (Just use Google Translate if you don’t read Swedish!)
Dr Key also suggested, ‘do your homework to find wines that fit your lifestyle, so when you have a glass of wine, it doesn’t derail your eating plan’.
Her other tips for wine lovers who eat low-carb had less to do with choosing wines, but more to do with drinking them.
‘First of all, realise that if you are eating based on a low-carb diet, you may become inebriated faster than if you were eating lots of carbohydrates’, cautions Dr Key. ‘Alcohol’s effect is even more pronounced when eating according to a ketogenic diet.’
‘And when you do indulge in a wine with sugar, realise it’s just that: an indulgence’, she said. ‘Do your homework, drink wines that fit your lifestyle, purchase quality over quantity, and savour every drop.’
3 Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes—2012, Diabetes Care 35 (suppl 1; 2012) S11–S63. https://doi.org/10.2337/dc12-s011
4 Diabetes Canada Position Statement on Low-Carbohydrate Diets for Adults With Diabetes: A Rapid Review, Canadian Journal of Diabetes 44 (2020) P295–299. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcjd.2020.04.001
5 Number of registered patients per GP rises to almost 2,100, Pulse (11 July 2019).
6 Range of residual sugar in Argentine Malbecs listed at CA$10 or more on the LCBO website, 15 January 2021.