Syrupy beer feud leaves bit­ter taste for some

But ad gives brew­ers, farm­ers, nu­tri­tion­ists plenty to get their heads around


A Bud Light Su­per Bowl ad meant to shame com­peti­tors for brew­ing their beer with corn syrup has an­gered corn pro­duc­ers, prompted MillerCoors to buy a full-page New York Times ad de­fend­ing its use of the in­gre­di­ent and given con­sumers a crash course in the chem­istry of beer.

The #corn­tro­versy or #corn­gate, as it has been la­beled on Twit­ter, has prompted brew­ers and di­eti­tians to come to the de­fense of the com­mon use of corn syrup in beer, where it gets con­verted into al­co­hol dur­ing fer­men­ta­tion.

De­spite the back­lash, the ad may have its in­tended ef­fect of driv­ing peo­ple away from Bud Light’s com­pe­ti­tion.

“Whether [corn syrup] is bad or not doesn’t re­ally mat­ter,” said Tim Calkins, clin­i­cal pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at North­west­ern Univer­sity’s Kel­logg School of Man­age­ment. “The is­sue is, do peo­ple think it’s bad?”

In the Su­per Bowl ad, the me­dieval Bud Light king­dom mis­tak­enly re­ceives a gi­ant bar­rel of corn syrup that its sub­jects then tote through treach­er­ous lands to de­liver to the king­doms of Miller Lite and Coors Light — be­cause they use corn syrup in their beer, while Bud Light does not.

Anup Shah, vice pres­i­dent of the Miller fam­ily of brands at MillerCoors, was at the game in At­lanta when he started get­ting texts from friends and co-work­ers de­scrib­ing the ad. Though he had got­ten wind that Bud Light might air an ad about in­gre­di­ents, he said he was “shocked” that it tried to “dis­par­age” his brands by name.

“I thought it was an act of des­per­a­tion from Bud Light,” Shah said. “It was try­ing to drive the con­nec­tion be­tween high-fruc­tose corn syrup and corn syrup, which I think is mis­lead­ing.”

The re­sponse from Chicagob­ased MillerCoors was swift on so­cial me­dia, where it clar­i­fied that it does not use high-fruc­tose corn syrup — a type of sweet­ener that has been shown to have neg­a­tive health ef­fects — and that its beers have fewer calo­ries and car­bo­hy­drates than Bud Light.

Last week MillerCoors ran a full-page ad in the New York Times declar­ing pride in its use of corn syrup, sourced from “Amer­ica’s heart­land,” and pok­ing fun at Bud Light for tar­get­ing a non-is­sue.

“We’d like to thank our com­peti­tors for tak­ing the time and money to point out this ex­cit­ing fact to such a large, na­tional au­di­ence not once, but twice,” it read.

Corn syrup is one of many types of non-malt in­gre­di­ents of­ten used in beer to cre­ate al­co­hol with­out adding much fla­vor, said Ray Daniels, founder and di­rec­tor of the Chicagob­ased Cicerone Cer­ti­fi­ca­tion Pro­gram, which tests and cer­ti­fies beer ex­perts. When it or any other type of su­gar gets fer­mented, it gets con­verted into al­co­hol and car­bon diox­ide, so “su­gar added to beer does not mean su­gar in the fin­ished beer,” he said.

Daniels said he was sur­prised to see Bud Light zero in on corn syrup as a dif­fer­en­tia­tor.

“They are sham­ing by im­pli­ca­tion,” Daniels said. “But it cer­tainly is un­clear what there is to be ashamed of.”

Corn syrup, made up of glu­cose and fruc­tose, is lit­tle dif­fer­ent from ta­ble su­gar, made of su­crose, from a health per­spec­tive, said Kristin Gus­tashaw, se­nior clin­i­cal di­eti­cian at Rush Univer­sity Med­i­cal Cen­ter.

High-fruc­tose corn syrup, which tends to be sweeter and cheaper, has a higher ra­tio of fruc­tose and isn’t pro­cessed as ef­fi­ciently by the body, she said. Con­sumed in ex­cess it can in­crease triglyc­erides, fatty liver, uric acid lev­els and make peo­ple less sen­si­tive to in­sulin, she said.

But that’s not the same as reg­u­lar corn syrup, es­pe­cially when used in beer fer­men­ta­tion, and Bud Light’s ad was just a “mar­ket­ing ploy” that di­verted at­ten­tion from the fact that beer over­all isn’t par­tic­u­larly nutri­tious, she said. Still, she ex­pects it will drive pa­tients to her of­fice wor­ried about whether they should switch beers.

“We shouldn’t re­ally care,” Gus­tashaw said of the types of sug­ars used in beer fer­men­ta­tion. “How much beer we drink we should care more about.”

AB InBev, which makes Bud Light, didn’t re­spond to a re­quest for a com­ment from the Tri­bune, but gen­er­ally it has re­sponded to the crit­i­cism by af­firm­ing its sup­port of the corn in­dus­try. The Na­tional Corn Grow­ers As­so­ci­a­tion on Sun­day tweeted that “Amer­ica’s corn farm­ers are dis­ap­pointed in you” and Kevin Ross, first vice pres­i­dent of the group’s Corn Board, posted a video of him­self pour­ing cans of Bud Light down the sink.

The anti-corn syrup ad came as Big Beer has com­mit­ted to greater trans­parency as sales slide for tra­di­tional brews. Bud Light, which is made with rice in­stead of corn, last month de­buted new pack­ag­ing that promi­nently dis­plays can’tmiss nu­tri­tion and in­gre­di­ent in­for­ma­tion. Miller Lite has dis­played nu­tri­tional in­for­ma­tion since 2014 and this month plans to launch a QR code on pack­ag­ing where con­sumers can get more in­for­ma­tion about in­gre­di­ents.

De­spite the back­lash, Calkins, of Kel­logg, said Bud Light’s corn syrup play was a “very smart strat­egy” that they wouldn’t have in­vested in with­out plenty of re­search that showed peo­ple cared.

“The chal­lenge in beer is to find a way to dif­fer­en­ti­ate, and they found a very clear point of dif­fer­ence,” he said. “You know it touched a nerve.”

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