I'm angry. If you're a good beer drinker or brewer, you should be too.
A food blogger, who demurely refers to herself as the Food Babe, recently posted a piece —which she breathlessly called The Shocking Ingredients in Beer— about what she believed to be the unhealthy, unlisted, and unpalatable ingredients in beer. It was a typical attack piece, half-right and misleading, and researched just enough to prove a point, rather than to find fact.
In reading it, I was reminded of the South Beach Diet, which once famously declared beer a horrible food product because it contained maltose. Well, yes, unfermented beer contains maltose, the sugar in barley. But that's what yeast ferments to produce beer. There is no maltose in finished beer. Called out on that inconvenient fact, the authors still refused to correct the record.
This Food Babe seems to have read from that same playbook of pernicious misinformation. On her website, she can be seen posing, holding a glass of wine. Should we tell her that wine is a terrible beverage choice? All that concentrated fructose? Should we tell her that the U.S. government allows over 60 additives for her wine, including dimethyl dicarbonate, a rather nasty chemical to forestall spoilage? By her logic, if such additives are allowed, they are, ipso facto, used. Drink up, Babe!
Even those farmers who employ organic methods spray their crops, albeit with different chemicals such as sulfur and copper. Not pesticides, but they take a toll on the environment. Do we tar those farmers, Babe?
What I found almost as appalling were the actions of several 'craft beer' advocates, who, non-disapprovingly, linked to this tonfoolery via Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. Had they actually read it or merely re-posted it? Did they assume that the Babe could not possibly be referring to 'craft' beer? And, if so, did they really believe that 'craft' beer has complete control over its ingredient chain, that it uses no chemicals or additives, and that it flows virginally from the fountains of Ninkasi? In making this falderal viral, they lent credence to it. As was put to me, in a more measured tone, by Maureen Ogle, author of Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer: "I'd hate to see a 'your beer is more pure than mine' war start over this."
In my ire, I turned to one of America's premier brewers and brewing instructors for a rebuttal. Steve Parkes possesses a brilliant zymurgical curriculum vitae, and is the owner of the American Brewers Guild, one of the three major U.S. brewing academies training our current and future 'craft' brewers. It would be safe to say that Mr. Parkes knows beer.
Here's what he had to say:
In order to write this piece, I have had to endure repeated readings of The Shocking Ingredients in Beer written by an internet character who calls herself The Food Babe. Trawling through the bad grammar and typos was painful enough, but putting that aside, and dealing with the innuendo, misrepresentation, and blatant falsehoods made it doubly so.
The Food Babe doesn’t drink beer, but she’s concerned for those of us who do. She’s right about the effects alcohol has on weight gain and on our general health but she didn’t leave it there. Armed with a list supplied by the Center For Science in the Public Interest, a group whose stated aim is to prevent people from drinking, and a quote from an anti alcohol campaigner, she sets about listing all of the ‘shocking” ingredients brewers are allowed to make beer with, and to not disclose on their labels.
The main thrust appears to be that beer can be made using corn, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, and dextrose, and that the brewers cannot provide proof that they are GMO [genetically modified organism] free. The problem with that is that no supplier of any food made from corn can prove no GMOs are present because no effort has been made to segregate GMO corn from the food supply. It’s unlikely to contain GMO material, but it’s impossible to say for certain it doesn’t.
And, if it were brewed with GMO corn —as Pabst Blue Ribbon might be according to the author’s wild speculation— the brewer is forbidden to put "contains GMO ingredients" on the label, thanks to the lobbying efforts of the food industry.
Anheuser-Busch is cited for being “caught using experimental food made in a laboratory,” referring to traces of an experimental rice found in the beer. Plots of experimental crops are planted right next to regular crops all the time and in this case the rice was simply contamination from rice in the field.
She moves on to talk about isinglass, which is solubilized swim bladders of subtropical fish, that has been used as a traditional clarification aid in beer for two centuries. It is widely used in the manufacture of English cask ales and many North American brewpubs use it to avoid the expense of a filter.
The author describes the use of isinglass by Guinness like this: “The sneaky thing this beer company does like many of the companies mentioned here today is create an illusion of using the best ingredients when in actuality what they tell you publicly on their websites is a complete farce.” (I didn’t leave out the punctuation … there wasn’t any).
Guinness does in fact use the best isinglass it can buy; the reason it’s not listed as an ingredient is because it’s not in the finished product. It is added to cause the yeast to clump together and sink more quickly to the bottom of the tank. The isinglass stays behind in the tank with the yeast.
The rest of the article lists, in unflattering and vague terms, a whole group of items that brewers are allowed to use if they want to, along with suggestions as to the illnesses they may or may not cause in some cases. The natural flavoring that may be derived from beaver anal glands is my favorite.
Many ingredients on that list date back generations, and while I can’t say for certain that they may have been added to a brewery product at some point in the past, I’m pretty sure that none are regular ingredients in beers today. Remember that brewers make a lot of flavored malt beverages today, so a lot of the flavorings, colorings, and preservatives end up in those. (I don’t advocate drinking those either.)
The writer has written an article filled with innuendo, is startlingly ignorant of the laws governing labeling, and is naïve about food science and brewing science in particular. She assumes the worst motives from beer manufacturers and makes wild unsubstantiated claims against some well-known brands. In her world, only foods derived from plants are to be trusted, and animal derived ingredients and process aids are forbidden, as are chemically derived ones. These are made against a backdrop of drinking beer for good health. I’m glad she didn’t research further and discover all of the unhealthy plant life that can creep into our beers if the brewers in this country weren’t so committed to making a safe and healthy product.
After this post was written, Steve Parkes submitted a few more things. Here:
The article is misleading at best. Her main sources other than brewers are organizations that want to ban alcohol. The brewers are naturally a little defensive when questioned about their processes from the public. Presumably those brewery PR departments checked out the Food Babe...perhaps even read her article on microwaves where she claims water exposed to microwaves resembles water that has been exposed to the words "satan" and "Hitler". So they were understandably reticent to engage her knowing what was coming.
Among brewers, the companies listed are quite open about their ingredients and processes. I've read long papers in technical journals describing how Guinness optimize their use of use isinglass. I've met with Anheuser Busch and Miller brewers and talked about their processes at length. There's no scandal there.... The process at Anheuser Busch is quite natural and traditional in fact, and AB have a line of gluten free and organic beers made in the same facilities as their other products.
In the interest of transparency, I should stipulate that I do indeed drink beer ... as a wholesome food. I've been in the beer business for twenty years, as a brewer, brewpub owner, and a beer salesman. I'm also a vegetarian, but I do not read the Food Babe's blog.
In posting this rebuttal, I, of course, have added additional viewers for her site. That's unfortunate, but to correct the record, necessary. It's sad that someone who professes a search for the truth about food would feel the need to distort the record to fit her truth. I'm on the same bandwagon about health and food (and somewhat about GMOs), but I reject her phony fellowship.
- UPDATE: Author Maureen Ogle has posted her own response to the self-named Food Babe, enlisting the assistance of several brewers to rebut various points. A very worthwhile read: "What’s In YOUR Beer? Or, The Dangers of Dumbassery."
- Caveat lector: As a representative for Select Wines, Inc. —a wine and beer wholesaler in northern Virginia— I sell beer for a living.