Food

The 'Food Babe' Blogger's Attack on Beer Gains National Attention, But Experts Call It 'Quackmail'

Scientists and brewers challenge blogger Vani Hari's claims about beer ingredients.​

Photo Credit: YouTube Screenshot

Earlier this month, Vani Hari, the blogger known as the “Food Babe” published a petition on her website that demanded the top beer companies come clean about the ingredients in their beer. Citing a long list of creepy, chemically-sounding ingredients that are allowed in beer, she implied that the industry was flying under the radar and obscuring the additives that they put in their products.​

The publicity stunt got Hari on the front page of the Financial Times, and highlighted by USA Today, ABC News, NBC News, and the Chicago Tribune without much question to her claims. Her stunt worked; within two days, America's two top brewers, Anheuser Busch InBev and SABMiller gave into Hari's demands and posted the ingredients of their beer products on their websites (here and here). 

But it turns out that Hari's campaign was 'all foam and no beer' and many of the nefarious ingredients and techniques she described were either misrepresented or entirely misunderstood by her.​

Beer lovers noticed something was wrong almost immediately. One of her charges against breweries was that they "even use fish swim bladders” in their products. But what Hari didn't know is isinglass, a powder made from the swim bladder of sturgeons has been used in beer, wine, and liquor products since the 18th century to help remove the yeast from the product. Moreover, this has never been a secret. Guinness, Fosters, Red Stripe, and Newcastle all use isinglass in some of their products and have never shied away from admitting it. But most breweries — notably the U.S. breweries that were the targets of her petition — don't use isinglass at all. So, the use of isinglass may make Newcastle's Brown Ale or Guinness' Stout not vegan friendly, but its far from the smoking-gun additive Hari made it out to be.​

But fish bladders were just the tip of the iceberg. Hari implied that brewers were including all sorts of ingredients with scary, mostly scientific, names. They included monosodium glutamate (MSG), carageenen, high-fructose corn syrup, malic acid, sulfuric acid, polyethylene glycol (or as Hari calls it “airplane de-icer” or “antifreeze”), beaver's anal gland, insect-based dyes, glyceryl monostearate, pepsin, and BPA.​

Soon after Hari's high-profile petition was rolled out, her critics — mostly scientists and brewers — took to the Internet to defend the science and ethics of brewing, and they didn't pull any punches with Hari.​

Dr. David Gorski, a cancer surgeon (and self-professed beer snob) who writes for the website Science-Based Medicinetook great offense to Hari's campaign, noting that she peddles in pseudoscience and uses fearmongering to promote her cause.​

“Her strategy is very transparent, but unfortunately it’s also very effective,” wrote Gorski. “Name a bunch of chemicals and count on the chemical illiteracy of your audience to result in fear at hearing their very names.”​

Not stopping there, Gorski said what Hari did was nothing more than blackmail.​

“Unfortunately, companies live and die by public perception,” he wrote. “It’s far easier to give a blackmailer like Hari what she wants than to try to resist or to counter her propaganda by educating the public. And, make no mistake, blackmail is exactly what Vani Hari is about.”​

Gorski notes that he's in no way a fan of the large industrial breweries and likens most of their offerings to “cold piss from horses with kidney disease.”​

Taking his cue from Gorski, Forbes.com blogger Trevor Butterworth dubbed the merger between pseudoscience and blackmail “quackmail” and chided mainstream media sources for taking Hari at her word, rather than investigating her claims.​

“So, when are journalists going to hold truth up to this new self-promoting juggernaut? Why have so many news stories avoided questioning her claims as they would question her targets in the food industry. Surely, someone who believes that saying “Satan,” repeatedly to a glass of water will alter the water's physical properties needs to be treated with a dash of skepticism—no?”​

Hari, who also advocates against vaccines, and had opined on her blog that exposing water to the words “Hitler” and “Satan” can change its structure. But unlike the many other bloggers who peddle pseudoscience, she has a developed a large, dedicated audience and is a frequent guest on television shows such as The Doctors and The Dr. Oz Show. Dr. Mehmet Oz, the show's namesake, has blessed her food advocacy as having “an Oz effect.”​

Unraveling the Regulatory Mystery of Booze​

Beer, like other alcohol products, is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, but instead by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which is part of the Treasury Department. Consumer products regulated by Bureau do not require ingredients labels as does food products. However, beer companies that make caloric claims for their products must include a “statement of average analysis” that also includes the amount of carbohydrates, fat, and protein per serving size or a “serving facts statement” that describes the serving size and number of servings per container. Brewers may also include alcohol content, if they wish. Allergen labeling is voluntary with the exception of additives such as Yellow Dye No. 5 and sulfites that may pose severe health consequences.​

While not directly regulated by the FDA, alcohol manufacturers must adhere to manufacturing practices and safety standards mandated by that agency. Substances in beer, including ingredients used in its production and processing must be recognized as safe by the FDA.​

Mitch Steele, the brewmaster for Stone Brewing, writes in a blog post that any beer made with “non-traditional” ingredients (beyond malt, water, yeast, hops, and some adjuncts like rice and corn) must go through a strict formulation approval by the Tax and Trade Bureau before it can be brewed.​

“So the insinuation that brewers can put anything in their beer and not label it is false and absurd,” he writes. “And I can say that the FDA is involved with brewing at an increasing rate.”​

Hari came up with her long list of scary and bizarre contents from a from a 32-year old book called “Chemical Additives in Beer” that was published by the Center for Science and Public Interest. The brewing industry, its recipes, and consumer tastes have changed much since then, and the rise of import and craft beers came long after 1982.​

Even the Center's current director, Michael Jacobson, who admits he is very wary of the contents of beer, points out that Hari's efforts may be exaggerated and misguided in part. He pointed out that propylene glycol — which Hari decries as antifreeze — is a “harmless food additive.”​

In fact, propylene glycol is found in a range of products such as salad dressing, popcorn, ice cream, and toothpaste.​

Moreover, several brewers took to the Internet to dispute Hari's claim that propylene glycol is a typical beer ingredient. They maintain, however, that it's not uncommon to use the substance as an external coolant used during processing. They also say that every production process aid is on the approved ingredients list regardless of whether or not it is part of the final product.​

But Hari claims that she wasn't talking about propylene glycol after all, but propylene glycol alginate (or PGA), which is used to control the foam. The problem with PGA, however, is that it's not the same thing as propylene glycol, as Dr. Gorski points out. In fact, PGA is an ester of alginic acid derived from kelp.​

“It's not the same chemical as propylene glycol,” he writes. “Not even close. It's not antifreeze.”​

As far as the other possible ingredients Hari lists, Steele says he's never heard of anyone using MSG in beer. He also notes that the high fructose corn syrup that Hari points to is an ingredient in a few craft beers, but “the sugars are almost 100% fermented by yeast. Consumers are not drinking corn syrup.”​

Another craft brewer, Todd Parker, notes that brewers use other sugars like molasses, honey, candi sugar, and maple syrup. He says that while some brewers use corn syrup as a sugar to lighten the body of the beer, it is not a common ingredient.​

Parker also takes issue with the assumption that brewers use GMO corn and other food products.​

“While we can't guarantee that nobody uses GMO products, they are not generally available to the majority of brewers. Most craft brewers are against their use and will never use them," he writes. 

Beaver anal gland, arguably the grossest approved ingredient on Hari's list, is known by “Castoreum” and is used to mimic the flavor of vanilla and raspberry. And while Castoreum is not named on the on the Tax and Trade Bureau's list of approved ingredients, it falls under the “natural flavoring” that can be added to beer. But it's unlikely many brewers use it since only 300 pounds is harvested from dead beavers annually and much of it is used to manufacture women's perfume. 

​AlterNet contacted Vani Hari for an interview. She responded that we send her our questions in writing, which we did. We did not receive a response. 

Cliff Weathers is a former AlterNet senior editor who writes on the environment and consumer issues. He was previously a deputy editor at Consumer Reports. His work has also appeared in Salon, Car and Driver, Playboy and Raw Story among other publications. Follow him on Twitter @cliffweathers.