Sugary drinks, often the target of public health campaigns and an upcoming New York City law, account for about 6% of adults' calories.
"We've been focusing on sugar-sweetened beverages. This is something new," said Cynthia Ogden, one of the study's authors. She's an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which released its findings on the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics website.
The government researchers say the findings deserve attention because, like soda, alcohol contains few nutrients but plenty of calories.
The CDC study is based on interviews with more than 11,000 U.S. adults from 2007 through 2010. Participants were asked extensive questions about what they ate and drank over the previous 24 hours.
The study found that the U.S. adult population consumes an average of almost 100 calories per day from alcoholic beverages, with men consuming more than women. On any given day, about one-third of men and one-fifth of women consumed calories from beer, wine or liquor.
Averaged out to all adults, men consume 150 calories from alcohol each day, about the equivalent of a can of Budweiser. The average woman drinks about 50 calories or roughly half a glass of wine.
For reference, a 12oz. can of regular Coca-Cola has 140 calories, slightly less than a same-sized can of regular Bud. A 5oz. glass of wine is around 100 calories.
Men drink mostly beer. For women, there was no clear favorite among alcoholic beverages.
There were no differences among different races and ethnicities, but there was an age difference: Young people drank more. Men between 20-39 consume almost 175 calories on average from alcoholic drinks, while older men aged 60 and over take in about 96 calories from booze. Similarly, younger women took in about 60 calories from alcohol while older women consumed about 33 calories from alcoholic drinks.
Although 67% of men and 82% of women did not drink alcoholic beverages on a given day, almost 20% of men and 6% of women took in more than 300 calories from alcoholic drinks daily.
A liquor trade association said the findings indicate there is no big problem.
"This research shows that the overwhelming majority of adults drink moderately," Lisa Hawkins, a spokeswoman for the Distilled Spirits Council, said in a statement.
In September, New York City approved an unprecedented measure cracking down on giant sodas bigger than 16oz. that are sold in bars, restaurants, sporting venues, and other establishments that full under the jurisdiction of the city health department. It will go into effect in March 2013.
The ban however does not apply to dairy-based or alcoholic drinks. Should New York officials now start cracking down on tall-boy beers and monster margaritas?
There are no plans for that, city health department officials said, adding in a statement that while studies show that sugary drinks are "a key driver of the obesity epidemic," alcohol is not.
Health officials should think about enacting policies to limit alcoholic intake, but New York's focus on sodas is appropriate, said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a public health advocacy group.
Soda and sweetened beverages are the bigger problem, especially when it comes to kids -- the number-one source of calories in the U.S. diet, she said.
"In New York City, it was smart to start with sugary drinks. Let's see how it goes and then think about next steps," she said.
However, she lamented that the Obama administration is planning to exempt alcoholic beverages from proposed federal regulations requiring calorie labeling on restaurant menus.
It could set up a confusing scenario in which, say, a raspberry iced tea may have a calorie count listed, while an alcohol-laden Long Island Iced Tea -- with more than four times as many calories -- does not. "It could give people the wrong idea," she said.