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.”