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Preservatives And Other Heinous Things In Beer

How impure is most of the beer you're drinking?

How impure is most of the beer you’re drinking?

A few years back, an article circulated and then recirculated across the internet about the hidden ingredients in beer. Brands were mostly fingered for using genetically modified ingredients with evils like gmo corn, corn syrup, dextrose, rice, and corn syrup, and less so for other non-necessities like caramel coloring, fish bladders, and propylene glycol (a component found in anti-freeze).  

Investigating further, the list of less-than-mouthwatering ingredients found in typically mainstream cheaper brews is astounding. 

However, none of this should come as a shock to anyone. Mainstream beer is just like any other mainstream food product. If you were to investigate the unnecessary additives which get injected into everything from potato chips to pizza dough to ice creams to conventionally produced meat, the adulteration of beer doesn’t look all that unique.

To clarify, nearly all genuine craft beer producers, priding themselves on the addition of unusual and natural ingredients, would be loath to include questionable additions. For the time being that would also apply to former craft brewers since kicked out of the Brewers Association for being acquired in whole or in part by a macrobrewer, beers like Goose Island, Bluepoint, and Lagunitas.  There is enough scrutiny and doubt cast upon the “sellouts” already that if their recipes were quickly adulterated in all the noticeable ways, the macrobrewer buyer would be foregoing all the credibility it hoped to gain by taking control of the micro.

Legally, brewers don’t have to label their bottles with a list of ingredients. They compensate with this lack by displaying platitudes like “fine pilsner beer brewed from the finest ingredients” (Miller) or “[our] process uses only the most flavorful portion of the finest ingredients” (Kirin).  Miller was echoing this bunk back in the 1980’s when the Center for Science in the Public Interest documented they were using harmful chemicals for enhancing foam, converting starches, and preserving the final product. Miller was doing just what all the other big boys were doing.  After this came to light and with the expanding influence of craft brewers in the 1990’s, big brewers realized they had to be a bit more circumspect in how much garbage they could add.

So what kind of dross still winds up in mainstream beers?

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a common culprit. MSG, which looks like common table salt at first glance, is often found in mainstream food products like chips and processed soups. MSG is a flavor enhancer that chemically and cheaply mimics the fifth basic taste sensation, savory or umami.  While the other four tastes – sweetness, sourness, bitterness, and saltiness – can be replicated by chemical means as well, umami seems to be the one for which food producers most quickly reach for the chemical toolkit.  Until one develops a sensitivity to MSG’s specific taste, it fools the taste receptors into believing food and drink tastes better than it is. Hence, its application by corner-cutting food producers over artisanal ones. MSG is an excitotoxin; it overstimulates the body’s neuron receptors and exhausts brain cells.

Brewers, like other food producers, can disingenuously make it appear they’re MSG free by promoting the beer as having no added MSG, meaning MSG itself was not added to the beer. Instead, MSG gets added as part of another food ingredient, like brewer’s yeast or natural flavoring. Natural flavoring as an additive is never a good sign.   A beaver’s anal gland can constitute natural flavoring. Fortunately, parts of a beaver’s butt are not found in beer, but you will find it commonly added to vanilla ice cream.

If you cannot pronounce an ingredient, that’s typically a sign you shouldn’t be eating it.  Calcium Disodium EDTA, made from formaldehyde (used to preserve cadavers), sodium cyanide (cyanide is a common poison), and ethlenediamine (which produces a toxic mist when exposed to humid air) has all the sounds of something you’d want left out of your beers. It’s already in plenty of your margarine spreads, salad dressings, and sodas. Calcium Disodium EDTA can disrupt the body’s mechanism for absorbing certain vitamins.

Abbreviated words are not a good sign either.  FD&C Blue 1, FD&C Red 40,and FD&C Yellow 5 don’t sound like they have any business being in a brew. All are made with petroleum and linked to allergies, asthma, and hyperactivity. 

Everyone knows arsenic is a poison. The World Health Organization considers the safety limit for arsenic in water to be no greater than 10 micrograms per liter, meaning the real safety limit is probably even lower. Arsenic finds its way into your brew when the beer is being filtered with diatomaceous earth. In a 2008 study, 19 beers sold in Italy, made not just in Italy, but Mexico, Spain, Japan, Ireland, Germany, and Belgium as well, showed arsenic, cadmium, and lead content. 

Indian producers are famous for adding glycerin to their untasty brews. None of them actually admit to it, but if you turn a freshly opened Indian beer bottle upside down and stick the mouth of the bottle inside a cup of water, you can see a thick yellow colored liquid emerge. 

Chemical foaming agents are notorious in macros. The sight of foam, like the design of the packaging, can, through a phenomenon known as sensation transference, make the buyer attribute beneficial properties to the product it doesn’t actually have. Put in a few drops of milk into a mug and add your favorite frothy brew. If the foam is genuine, the fats in the milk will quickly destroy the trapped gas bubbles and the foam will disappear. If the foam is artificially induced, it will continue to linger.

Most craft beers are unpasteurized. They’re living breathing products that continue to age in the bottle and, as a result, have a limited shelf life.  Macros, on the other hand, are pasteurized and have a longer shelf life anyway, negating the need for a number of the more disturbing preservatives heretofore mentioned.

The preservative no one has any problem with is hops. Because it is a naturally occurring ingredient, it is not even considered a preservative anymore in the modern food science sense of the word. Ironically, this is the one preservative macros enjoy skimping on the most.


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