There’s a lot of pseudoscience about food out there. From genetically modified crops to organic foods to corn syrup, to preservatives, passionate opinions abound, but well-reasoned, well-researched reporting on the issues is scarce. Normally, I selectively address the more egregious offenses and ignore the rest. But once in a while, an article comes along that is so misinformed, so hyperbolic, and so viral that it cannot be ignored. When such an article maligns one of my favorite food items, beer, I am duty-bound to come to its defense.
Recently, Organics.org turned a post by the blogger Vani Hari, better known as the “Food Babe,” into the worst kind of clickbait with the sky-is-falling headline, “8 Beers That You Should Stop Drinking Immediately,” which has been making the rounds on social media networks. But rather than exposing any dangers in beer, what Hari does reveal is that she does not understand the brewing process, how additives and ingredients function throughout that process, or how the beer industry is regulated.
The first warning sign that the Food Babe’s information may be dubious is that one of her main sources was the book, Chemicals Additives in Beer, published by the Center of Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which has a poor record when it comes to being scientifically sound. As food historian Maureen Ogle noted in her rebuttal (which I highly recommend):
[T]his one fact set off my alarm bells: She [Hari] relied on information from the Center for Science in the Public Interest. If you’ve read Ambitious Brew, you know that I have zero patience with CSPI. For thirty years, that group has railed against the alcohol industry and lobbied for neo-prohibition. As a source of information, it’s untrustworthy, unreliable, and constantly shows a somewhat shocking disregard for science (weird, given the group’s name).
Moreover, I couldn’t find a copy of the book anywhere or even a listing that might demonstrate its existence.
Worse, Hari’s hyperbolic language suggests that her purpose is not to imbue her readers with new knowledge, but rather to instill fear. Rather than provide evidence about the dangers of certain ingredients in beer, she simply associates ingredients with things that are icky, as if “gross” automatically equals “unsafe.” For example, she points out that beer sold in America can contain ingredients like dried fish bladder and natural flavors that “can come from anything natural including a beavers [sic] anal gland.”
But so what? It’s true that fish bladder, called “isinglass” in the industry, has been used for more than 100 years in the making of beer and wine in order to filter out impurities. As Stone Brewing Co. brewmaster Mitch Steele put it:
These compounds attract solid material in the beer, which then clump together and sink to the bottom of the tank, leaving the remaining beer crystal clear… The key point, however, is that this material stays behind in the tank. It’s not in the final beer product.
As for “beaver anus,” the ingredient, known as “castoreum” is an excretion from a beaver’s castor gland that has been used in food, perfume, and medicine since at least the first century A.D. Technically, castoreum is excreted by the castor gland—not a beaver’s anal gland, but because of the gland’s location between the pelvis and base of the tail it often contains anal secretions and urine. Reportedly, it smells vanilla and is used to enhance raspberry and strawberry flavorings. While it might be mentally distasteful, the FDA has recognized it as safe as a food additive in the U.S. for the last 80 years.
Hari also claims that carrageenan, a seaweed extract used as a clarifying agent that can be a “carcinogen in some circumstances,” even though it doesn’t remain in the final beer product and there is no evidence to support the assertion that it is a carcinogen.
Hari describes the additive propylene glycol as “an ingredient found in anti-freeze.” Again, Maureen Ogle’s rebuttal demonstrates Hari’s lack of understanding of actual brewing practices. Steve Parkes, the owner and lead instructor at the American Brewers Guild Brewing School, notes that while propylene glycol is a legal additive in other kinds of food, brewers use it as a refrigerant. “Why is it on the list of approved ingredients? Every production process aid is listed regardless of whether it’s in the final product or not.”
But even if all brewers listed every ingredient that went into making their beer and posted up their production methodology (assuming they don’t care about protecting their trade secrets), neither Hari nor anybody else would not have perfect knowledge about what is in the final product or every possible health effect from drinking any one beer. Of course, that’s true for any food or ingredient we eat—even natural, organic, home grown, hand-picked foods carry some risks.
Fear can be healthy; it leads us to investigate potential dangers by seeking a better understanding of the benefits or risks of certain foods and better information to allow consumers to demand healthier practices from industry. But, as Hari’s article proves, readers should be skeptical about hyperbolic claims about food dangers even when the source appears to be an expert. Cheers to those consumers who go beyond reading the flashy headlines to research and decide for themselves!