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You'll Pry My Guinness From My Cold, Dead Hands

by Mike Rothschild

April 21, 2014

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Donate Cautionary listicles of things you should "never do" are popular because they're easily consumable, have a click-grabbing title, lots of pictures and are ostensibly about helping you change your ways. Unfortunately, they're also breeding grounds for misinformation, due to their lack of context and depth.

One listicle that's caused quite a stir in a number of communities is "8 Beers That You Should Stop Drinking Immediately", from the open-source blog Banoosh, and written by a "Mr. Z." A list of eight beers that supposedly have various deleterious health effects and should be consumed by nobody, this has a staggering 2.7 MILLION Facebook shares and over 12,000 retweets. It's clear that people are reading it and taking it as gospel truth about adult beverages. However, they shouldn't be, as this list is really just an anonymous opinion, posted on a site that will let anyone post anything without the slightest vetting. It's also really, really wrong.

Most of Mr. Z's 10,000 posts for Banoosh are the same clogosphere filler and reposts you can get on a thousand other blogs and link farms. For this particular missive, Mr. Z credits himself as the writer, but the actual post, from April, is simply a cut and paste of another post, this one on "" and written by "organics" in December. Mr. Z slips the source in at the bottom, but it's literally the same content. Again, typical for the clogosphere.

Going even deeper down the rabbit hole, we find that the majority of the content Mr. Z copied from Organics originates from yet another anonymous blog post, this one by someone calling herself "Food Babe."

Food Babe sees herself as a crusader for "the truth" about food, but really is offering the same mix of anti-GMO/pro-organic propaganda, self-serving backslapping and ads for natural foods that many other food bloggers have. Needless to say, she's got a huge following, and it's no surprise that her July 2013 post, called "The Shocking Ingredients in Beer," was a hit with that set.

In the post, Food Babe sets out to investigate "what's really in" some of the most commonly consumed oat sodas in the US. And of course, it's all bad — tons of additives, preservatives, random chemicals and those deadly GMO's. As a primary source for these claims, she cites the book "Chemicals [sic] Additives in Beer" written by the Center for Science and Public Interest. Incidentally, what she's talking about is actually a pamphlet, and it's called "Chemical Additives in Booze." A subtle, but biasing difference.

The CPSI is a neo-prohibitionist consumer advocacy group colloquially known as "the food police" and known more for pushing their own agenda than trying to make food safer. It's not surprising that an anti-alcohol, anti-GMO watchdog would provide biased information that denigrates both alcohol and GMO's, linking them together to create a frothy, chemical-infused pint glass of sickness.

So in summary, we have an anonymous blogger (Mr. Z) lifting wholesale from an anonymous blogger (Organics) who in turn wholesale quoted an anonymous blogger (Food Babe) who used dubious information from a biased source (CSPI) to make the point she would have made anyway (GMOS BAD). Oh, the tangled web woo weaves.

Here's the list of ingredients on the Banoosh post (the most popular of the three posts) and what the real story is behind them:
GMO Corn Syrup
The first thing we have to get out of the way is that, despite an enormous and well-funded movement saying otherwise, GMO products are perfectly safe. Don't get biased nonsense from internet scientists, read reputable studies (ie, not the one with the rats and the tumors because it was retracted) and blog posts by people who know what they're talking about and do this kind of work every day. Call me a shill, call me a plant, demand to know who pays me, etc. But it's true. There is no compelling evidence of harm from GMO's.

With that aside, sugar is a vital part of the brewing process, providing the fuel for the yeast that turns into alcohol. You can't have beer without some kind of sugar for the yeast to consume. Some cheaper beers on the list of eight (Budweiser, Corona, Miller, Coors Light, PBR - the others are Newcastle Brown, Guinness and Michelob) might use corn syrup as a substitute for sugar because it's less expensive in the US. But on a molecular level, fructose and sucrose are the same thing. And the sugar/syrup is all gone by the time you drink the beer, anyway. If it wasn't, you'd have a gross, sugary, yeasty beer. And who wants that?

GMO Corn
For the purposes of this list, I don't know what the difference is between "GMO Corn" and "GMO Corn Syrup." There is such a thing as corn beer, which is popular in Latin America. But that's probably not what Organics/Mr. Z/Food Babe was talking about. More likely this was just added to the list to pad it out.

High Fructose Corn Syrup
See above.

Fish Bladder
Ew, right? Why would fish bladder be in my beer!?!? It's not. But an extract of it makes your beer purer. To quote brewer Eric Sorenson: "For centuries, beer makers have used "finings," to remove yeast and protein hazes that occur in fermented beverages. These clarifying materials do not carry over into the beer in any appreciable amount[.]

One common fining material is isinglass, which is made from the swim bladders of tropical fish. Yeast cell walls carry a negative charge but isinglass is positively charged. The difference in the electrical charges allows the yeast to settle to the bottom of the brewery's tanks or the casks from which it is served."

My Guinness, which the list cites as needing to be avoided because of its use of fish bladder, makes use of isinglass, and has since it was first created on that magical day in Dublin. And if you try to take it away from me, you'll draw back a bloody stump.

Propylene Glycol
Propylene Glycol is a food grade substance used in the external chilling systems of breweries. The only way it could get into your beer is if the brewery has a leak in their cooling system. Another scary sounding chemical that has a real purpose.

Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
According to brewer Nathan Heck, "Beer can contain MSG because glutamate occurs naturally in its production: glutamate combines in small amounts with sodium ions present in wort and fermented beer." I can't find any compelling proof that MSG is purposefully added to beer, and I'm not sure what purpose it would serve.

Natural Flavors
This is added to some fruit beers, but not to any of the beers on this list. Furthermore, there is no conspiracy to keep you from knowing this. If a beer uses natural flavors, it legally must be labeled "Ale Brewed with Natural Flavorings."

GMO Sugars
See above. No sugar, no alcohol. No alcohol, less fun.

Caramel Coloring
The list singles out Newcastle Brown Ale as using caramel coloring, specifically saying "Class 3 and 4 caramel coloring is made from ammonia, which is classified as a carcinogen." This is, of course, ludicrous. Ammonia is not a carcinogen - it's a colorless gas made of hydrogen and nitrogen, and is used in many forms in dozens of products. It's also found in interstellar space, the atmosphere and rain water. Incidentally, another form of ammonia, the inert salt ammonium sulfate, was behind the recent and ridiculous "yoga mat material found in bread!" scare.

The real danger from caramel coloring using ammonia caramel 3 comes from the compound 4-methylimidazole or 4-Mel, which some studies have found to cause cancer in lab mice. However, there's no direct evidence that 4-Mel causes cancer in humans, no documented cases of it doing so and very little understanding of the mechanism by which the cancer in the lab mice formed. So while we can't say there's NO risk to it, we also can't say for sure that there IS risk to it. Which is a pretty different answer than "drinking Newcastle will give you cancer."

Incidentally, the CSPI has lobbied hard to have caramel coloring removed from food, specifically soda. So it's not shocking they'd try to link it to disease.

Insect-Based Dyes
I can't find any compelling evidence that such dyes are used in any beer. The idea that they are comes solely from Food Babe and has no supporting evidence. Even the "list of 8 beers" doesn't have one with such an additive. This reminds of me of the hysteria about "antifreeze" being in vaccines, despite it never having been.

Chondrus crispus, also known as carrageenan or Irish moss, is an edible seaweed used in both mass-market and homemade beers as fining to clarify the beer. Its remnants are removed during the brewing process and don't end up in the final beverage. Incidentally, you can also buy powered capsules of Irish moss, which you can take to "promote overall well-being." My overall well-being is much more promoted by a pint of Guinness.

Like Mel-4, BPA has been found to cause cancer in lab mice. It's also not an additive in beer. The only way BPA would end up in your brew is leaching from an aluminum can. And the amount is trivial. According to the New Belgium Brewing Company: "The amount of BPA migrating from can coatings would result in the consumption of less than 0.105 micrograms (0.000105 milligrams) per kilogram body weight per day. This level is more than 475 times lower than the maximum acceptable or 'reference' dose for BPA of 0.05 milligrams per kilogram body weight per day[.]"

There's absolutely no reason why a brewer who cares about their product and the people who drink it would add BPA, or most of this other stuff, to their beer. And they don't.

& lots more!
Not really.

So responsibly enjoy your favorite beer, whether it's lager, ale, pilsner, IPA, stout or even something fruit flavored, and don't pay any attention to the food police who want to scare you into sobriety.

by Mike Rothschild

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