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Your Beer Could Be Killing You
Advertisements by major brewers and government organizations repeatedly warn us about responsible drinking, yet nobody ever chides the beer industry about responsible brewing. Every single day, many millions of people are unknowingly poisoning themselves while enjoying a cold one. In this article, we are going to go through the many potentially harmful ingredients and additives in beer.
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO)
GMO products have been in our food supplies for some time now, and it is only recently that the world is waking up to the potential dangers they manifest. Many people are now aware that Monsanto owns 70% of the corn industry (and 90% of soy crops) in the United States, and their "Roundup Ready" crops are engineered to take on Roundup pesticide without dying. Of course, that pesticide gets passed on to you, and Glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup) is likely not fit for human consumption. Most of the studies that suggest that Glyphosate and modified food consumption are safe have been done by Monsanto themselves. However, studies done by other parties have come up with much different results finding that GMOs/Glyphosate can cause cell damage, cancer, non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, Parkinson's disease, infertility, and other diseases.
Keep in mind that Monsanto is a chemical company responsible for producing "products" like DDT, PCBs, and Agent Orange. They are not a food company. They are also very powerful, and apparently not subject to the scrutiny in the United States that they are elsewhere. This is simply a primer on Monsanto, not an article or debate about the specifics of GMO health risks. Do your own research and we are certain you will come to the conclusion that warranted this section of the article, and its placement at the top of our list.
"I thought this article was about beer", you ask. While many people are aware of Monsanto's poisoning of our food supply, many are unaware that this also applies to beverages. Most mass-produced lagers from the USA, Canada, Mexico, et al, are made with corn and/or rice, and you can be sure that the reason they are inexpensive is because they are skimping on the malts and using corn as an adjunct to keep the price down. And don't think for a second that they are buying organic corn. Most cheap American lagers are made with GMO corn, and it is very difficult to find one that isn't. GM rice is also prevalent and used in many Asian and American lagers as well. Those that drink large quantities of these types of beers are likely ingesting significant amounts of pesticides. Even small amounts could pose a health risk, and the medical and scientific communities haven't appropriately considered, or had the sampling time necessary to determine the health effects of these products. This problem is further compounded by the fact that GMO labeling is not required, nor is a list of ingredients. When brewers voluntarily list their "key" ingredients, they will leave out any mention of high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, or other harmful ingredients. Caveat emptor!
The easiest way to avoid beer containing GMOs is to drink ales as they are not made with corn or rice, although some wheat beers may contain GM wheat. Certified organic lagers are safe from GMOs as are many lagers produced by craft breweries, although you should check with them to be sure. Ales and craft beers are typically more expensive, so for those who wish to drink cheap lagers, the task is more difficult. Most of Europe has banned GM corn, so your best bet is to get brands like Amstel, Heineken, Samuel Smith's Pure Brewed Lager, Stella, Harp, Peroni, Grolsch, Becks, Spaten, Warsteiner, Lowenbrau, etc. Beer from New Zealand such as Steinlager is safe from GMOs as well. The problem here is that all of these beers are imported, and hence, more expensive. Avoiding GMO beer IS more expensive, just like buying organic food is.
Note that some major brewers choose to brew beer for their international markets in those countries rather than export them, which can lead to different ingredients being used than those found at the place of origin. Check the bottle to make sure that it is actually brewed in a country that bans GMOs.
While Carrageenan is derived from a natural source (red seaweed), it is processed, and evidence suggests that it can cause or compound a wide variety of stomach disorders such as gastrointestinal inflammation, IBS and cancer. Carrageenan is used as a thickener in products like soy milk, almond milk, ice cream, sour cream, and yoghurt. It is also used to de-ice airplanes. In beer, it is used as a clarifier and often referred to as Irish Moss. Even homebrewers add it to their beer in the form of a whirfloc tablet. Isinglass (fish bladders) and gelatin (connective tissue and hooves) are also used as clarifiers in beer. While these sound awful, they are rather innocuous (unless you are a vegetarian/vegan), and are certainly preferable to carrageenan.
Many will retort that these clarifiers settle at the bottom of the fermenter and are filtered out, however, inevitably some of it will disolve into the beer, or not be removed during the filtering process. There is no way to filter 100% of these substances out. Avoiding carrageenan is very difficult, and buying organic will not guarantee anything as it has been approved for use in organic foods until 2017, at which time it will be voted on again. Just about the only way to avoid it is to contact the brewer and find out what they use to clarify their beer, or brew your own without any additives or clarifiers (or use diatomaceous earth instead if you have the ability).
Bisphenol A, or BPA, is a synthetic compound that has been used to make plastics and resins since the 1960's. Human contact is most often in food and beverage storage containers, canned food, and water bottles. It is also used by some brewers to line the inside of their cans. While the danger of BPA is still hotly debated, many believe that it can disrupt hormone levels, impair fetus development, affect child brain development, cause cancer, and many other issues. Unlike most of the other items on this list, BPA is relatively easy to avoid - simply don't drink canned beer.
Calcium Disodium EDTA
Calcium Disodium EDTA is a synthetic compound made from formaldehyde, sodium cayanide, and Ethylenediamine. It is used in the medical industry to treat lead and mercury poisoning as well as in cosmetics, in laboratories for scavenging metal ions, the textile and paper industries, and other industrial uses. It is also used as a preservative in canned food and as a foam stabilizer and preservative in beer. According to WebMD, "Too much can cause kidney damage, dangerously low calcium levels, and death". What about lower levels? WebMD says, "EDTA can cause abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, low blood pressure, skin problems, and fever". EDTA has also become a serious environmental problem due to its overuse. You can likely avoid this by staying away from mass produced beers, and it should not be present in organic products.
Propylene Glycol is a synthetic liquid substance commonly found in anti-freeze, detergents and cosmetics. It is also used as a foam stabilizer in beer. Many health releated studies have been done and the results have been contradictory. On the negative side, some studies suggest it can cause allergies and cell mutations. The government organization, Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, states that it can affect the skin, kidneys and respiratory system. It also can be harmful to aquatic life when it enters the water table. If you avoid mass produced lagers (Bud, Miller, Coors, etc) you probably won't be ingesting much of this as it is mainly used by larger manufacturers.
There are several dyes and other coloring agents that are found in some beers. Let's take a look at these:
It should be noted that the majority of beers do not contain dyes.
- FD&C blue 1, FD&C yellow 5, FD&C red 40 - These dyes are petroleum based and associated with migraines, allergies, asthma, and hyperactivity in kids. While no definitive research has concluded that these dyes are harmful, several European countries have banned them.
- Caramel coloring - Newcastle Brown Ale doesn't solely get its color from roasted barley, they also add artificial coloring made from ammonia. Newcastle has decreased its usage in order to comply with California law, however, it is not known if the new version is available elsewhere, or if these lower levels of coloring are safe. It is suggested that this coloring is a carcinogen.
- Insect dyes - Although not harmful to most, it should be noted that some beers contain red dyes (Carmine) made from crushed cochineal beetles. Some people do have severe allergic reactions to foods containing this dye, and vegetarians/vegans may want to avoid it as well. Schofferhofer Grapefruit is one beer that contains this. We'll add more to the list as we discover them.
Sodium benzoate is a widely used preservative in soda, and sometimes ciders. When combined with ascorbic acid (vitamin C), benzene, a known carcinogen is created. Benzene has been detected in some Chinese beers. More concerning are some studies such as Professor Peter Piper's of the University of Sheffield who claims that sodium benzoate by itself can damage and inactivate vital parts of DNA in a cell's mitochondria.
Dimethylpolysiloxane is a synthetic silicone-based agent used in cosmetics, shampoo, caulk, and many other products. In beer, it provides an anti-foaming function and is used by some commercial brewers as well as homebrewers. The problem with this additive is that very little testing has been done on it. Of course, some will claim that none of it remains in the finished beer anyway, but we have already covered that.
Glyceryl Monostearate is an organic compound made up of stearic acid and glycerol and is generally considered safe, although some studies have shown toxicity in some organs. We included this additive in our list for vegetarians and vegans because it is almost always derived from animal fats.
There are many other "ingredients" in beer that are generally considered safe unless one is allergic including calcium chloride, potassium metabisulfite, calcium sulphate (may have some health benefits), magnesium sulfate, polyvinylpolypyrrolidone (PVPP), calcium carbonate, ascorbic acid (unless combined with sodium benzoate), diammonium phosphate, bentonite, and others.
When writing this article, I listed the additives from most harmful to least harmful based on the research I have done over the years. Realistically, if you can cut out GMOs, BPA, and carrageenan, you probably aren't doing much damage to yourself with the rest (with the exception of caramel coloring). But accomplishing just this is no easy task.
I used to speak poorly about the German Purity Law (Reinheitsgebot) because I felt it stifled creativity, however, if you are concerned with healthy living, beers that adhere to this general principle top the list. The law, written in 1487, only allowed beer to contain water, malt and hops. The law was later replaced by the Provisional German Beer Law, which added yeast, wheat malt, and cane sugar as acceptable ingredients.
From a health perspective, if you wish to drink mass produced pale lagers, European beers are generally safer than their American counterparts which should be avoided altogether. Even with European lagers, it is likely that many of them use some of the additives above. They also tend to be more expensive.
The majority of craft brewers produce beer that is free of GMOs and other additives, however, they may still use Carrageenan and BPA (if sold in cans). Organic beers are guaranteed to be free of GMOs and other additives, although they also can still contain Carrageenan and BPA (if canned). In most cases, you would have to contact them to find out.
Choosing healthier beer will remain very difficult until brewers are required to provide a list of ingredients in their products. We should all be pressuring our representatives to have this made a reality for our own sakes. In lieu of this, voluntary labling or assurances by brewers would certainly provide consumers with enough "safe" beer choices to help the health conscious.
The List of Responsible Brewers
This will be an ongoing list of "safe" brewers that do not include any of the additives mentioned in this article. It will be a work in progress as we contact some of our favorite brewers, and hopefully, they respond.
Beer Valley Brewing Company:
Beer Valley Brewing uses only the finest prairie grown barley, choicest hops grown locally in the Treasure Valley, sparkling, filtered, mountain water, and an American Ale yeast strain to produce our fine beers. No artificial additives of any kind are used in the processing of our beer. For special, seasonal beers including Oregonberry Wheat Ale, Jackalope Imperial Pumpkin Porter, and Heavy Sugars Honey Ale, our brewery uses regionally produced, aseptic fruit and vegetable purees, and honey produced by Northwest bee keepers. Cold filtered only, our beers are produced with an age tested process that results in a natural, unfiltered, full bodied, traditional Northwest American style of beer.
Full Sail Brewing Company:
All Full Sail Beers, including the Session Beers, are brewed with only water, malt, hops, and yeast, and all our beers are naturally carbonated and sterile filtered. No stimulants, additives, GMOs, sugars, HFCS, preservatives, fluoride, or animal products are used in any of the beers that we brew or in any of our brewing processes - this even includes the packaging!