I’ve had a lot of conversations this week about corn syrup, and it’s all because of a Super Bowl beer ad.
In the continuing series of Bud Light “dilly, dilly” ads riffing on the faux-Middle Ages, the spot featured workers at a castle receiving deliveries of beer ingredients. At the Bud Light castle, they receive a huge barrel labeled “corn syrup,” and insist it must be a mistake because they do not use it. They then embark on a journey to bring it both to Miller and Coors, emphasizing that they use corn syrup, so the delivery must be theirs.
To the casual beer-drinking public, the notion that corn syrup might be found in their beloved beer was confusing. Are some breweries really adding corn syrup to their beers to sweeten it? Their concern may also be due to the reputation of corn syrup’s ubiquitous and highly-processed cousin, high fructose corn syrup, which has been maligned for its health risks and contributions to the growing obesity epidemic.
To understand why corn syrup is raising so many eyebrows, we have to return to the fundamentals. If you’ve ever been on a brewery tour, it is likely you’ve been told about – or quizzed on – the four ingredients in beer: malt, hops, yeast and water. The real work of making these ingredients into beer is done by the yeast that ingests sugars and produces alcohol and carbon dioxide. The sugars feeding the yeast in most beers come from the malts, usually barley or wheat. Most modern brewers use grains that are “malted” which means they are allowed to germinate just enough to produce enzymes that will break down their starches into sugars that the yeast can easily eat.
In addition to that sugar coming from the malt, there are some instances in which brewers may want to add sugar. A popular method used by home-brewers (and some commercial brewers) is to prime the beer with a measured dose of sugar immediately before bottling to ensure that there is enough sugar available for the yeast to produce the desired amount of carbonation. Some brewers do the opposite, adding sugars that are more difficult for the yeast to break down to contribute sweetness to the final beer or to emphasize other flavors (maple syrup, etc.). Some beer styles use corn products as defined by the style, such as Mexican lagers that use flaked corn alongside more traditional barley.
The reason that Bud, Miller and Coors may want to do this, however, is more about the body of the beer. If you add extra sugar that didn’t come from the malt, and your yeast can digest it, the yeast will produce more alcohol without making the body of the beer thicker. The three beers mentioned in the ad are all light beers, and their goal is to be thirst-quenching and, well, light. The sugar is consumed by yeast and does not remain in the beer, which is why they are not really being sweetened, per se. Miller and Coors use liquified corn-based sugars to accomplish this in their light beer products, and Bud Light uses rice to achieve the exact same end. Rice and corn products are cheaper than barley, which is the core of why the big beer companies are criticized by craft brewers for making “cheap” beer.
Note that neither company is using high fructose corn syrup in these particular products – but it can be argued that the ad may have wanted people to think so. They even managed to produce an angry response from corn farmers and corn lobbyists, calling the ad an “attack” on their livelihood. Ironically, AB-InBev, the parent company that produces the Bud Light brand, does produce multiple products with corn syrup, so I’m still not sure what they were trying to accomplish by vilifying what is a fairly common practice, even in their own company.
The rivalries between these beers is unsurprising considering that Bud Light, Coors Light and Miller Lite are the top three best-selling beers in the U.S., with Bud Light bringing in over a billion dollars in sales in 2018 according to the Industrial Research Institute. All three, however, have experienced declines in their growth for several years, due to an overall decline in beer drinking and losing ground to craft beer and other types of drinks. The growth of health-conscious consumers has also caused the big beer companies to lose ground as people leave beer for healthier (and often non-alcoholic) alternatives.
The ad was at least successful in making viewers wonder just what’s in their beer, something the larger companies have been less than transparent about over the years. Beer isn’t required to have ingredients listed out like food. For many, finding out about ingredients beyond hops, malt, yeast and water might have been a surprise – but in most cases shouldn’t be cause for alarm. If you’re still worried, there’s plenty of craft beer waiting on the shelves for you in Maine, and I’m sure the people that make it would be more than happy to tell you what goes into every pint.