Understanding Units

Over the last few years millions of pounds and several times as many words have been spent making everyone aware of units and urging us all to drink within the Government’s daily guidelines.

But what do units actually mean? Some people may know that one unit of alcohol is exactly 10ml of pure alcohol (equivalent to 8 gms by weight). Many more know that the UK Government’s sensible drinking guidelines say that we should not regularly drink more than three or four units per day if you are a man – and two to three units per day if you are a woman(2). But do people know how many units there are in a typical serving of their favourite drinks? The evidence suggests many still do not.

Units are not always easy to understand in everyday life. Many wines now have an alcohol content of 13 or 14% (by volume), and glass sizes range from 125ml to 250ml making it complicated to keep track of your drinking. So a single glass of wine can easily contain 3.5 units of alcohol.

With spirits, which like wine are predominately consumed at home, self-pouring can lead to a higher number of units being consumed than realised. Whilst a single measure (25ml) of a Understanding units 40% spirit equates to around 1 unit of alcohol, a recent BBC study found that most people considerably over-estimated what a single measure was when asked to pour this themselves.

For beer it is generally easier. Beer is primarily sold in single-serve containers and over 90% of the beer sold in cans and bottles is now labelled to show the exact number of units in the container. Even in the pub, tracking units is not much more difficult because the strength and serving size for beer are more consistent. Beer is primarily sold in pint or half pint glasses and has alcohol content in the range 3.5% to 5.5% alcohol. As a rule of thumb, a pint in a pub will normally contain between 2-3 units of alcohol.

Jonathan Neame, Chief Executive of Kent Brewer Shepherd Neame says “The average strength of beer is just under 4.2% making beer the UK’s lowest alcohol drinks category. Beer is one of the few alcoholic drinks where you can reduce the alcohol content and still produce an enjoyable drink with good flavours and complexity. In recent years, brewers both large and small, have been creating lower alcohol beers to satisfy the growing consumer demand for beer’s flavour and refreshment without wanting to consume large amounts of alcohol”.