Why Corn Syrup Is Used to Brew Beer
Bud Light's Super Bowl ad campaign knocked the commonly-used ingredient, whether it deserved it or not.
By at least some accounts, the big loser in last night’s Super Bowl wasn’t the Los Angeles Rams, but the corn industry. During the game, Bud Light — one of the Super Bowl’s most conspicuous and discussed sponsors — ran a spot criticizing Miller Lite and Coors Light’s use of corn syrup as a brewing ingredient. The in-your-face ad featured a massive barrel labeled corn syrup and even concluded with the line, “To be clear, we brew Coors Light with corn syrup.”
The spot received plenty of immediate rebukes on Twitter, but none probably more notable than the National Corn Growers Association. “.@BudLight America’s corn farmers are disappointed in you,” their tweet replied. “Our office is right down the road! We would love to discuss with you the many benefits of corn! Thanks @MillerLight and @CoorsLite for supporting our industry.”
Let’s get this out of the way: Nothing is inherently wrong with brewing with corn syrup, and Bud Light’s ad has an unsettling undertone of misleading and anti-scientific fear-mongering.
On the latter point, corn syrup — and more specifically, high fructose corn syrup — has been under assault for two reasons: First, high fructose corn syrup is often used as a sugar replacement. Whether high fructose corn syrup is worse for you than sugar is another topic, but corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup are two different products: The latter, as the name implies, has additional fructose, a type of sugar. And yet, brewing ferments sugars into alcohol anyway — meaning most light beers end up with little-to-no sugar regardless of what kind of fermentables you put in them. So to imply that corn syrup is somehow worse for you by tacitly tying it into the criticism around high fructose corn syrup as an unhealthy sweetener is entirely misleading.
The second criticism corn syrup has faced recently is that it can be made with GMOs. How you feel about GMOs is up for a separate debate as well, but — again — attempting to tacitly imply that your competitors use GMOs without directly addressing it — which appears to be a side-effect of Bud Light’s corn syrup accusations — is dubious at best. And since Bud Light never specifically addresses what it thinks is wrong with corn syrup, all of this is guilt by association.
But let’s return to my first, very important point: Brewing with corn syrup isn’t “bad” to begin with. Alcohol is made through the fermentation of sugars. Sugars can come from a number of sources. The most common source is barley, but other “adjunct” grains can be added as well either to alter the flavor or save money. Corn is a popular one (many Mexican beers use corn). Another popular adjunct is rice — which, surprise, surprise — is what Bud Light chooses to use, pretty much for the same reasons that Miller Lite and Coors Light choose corn. In fact, Miller Lite could have run a commercial with their people rolling around a giant barrel of rice and it would have been equally accurate. The difference is we've yet to have a national health debate about "rice syrup."
Now, some may argue that brewing with corn syrup versus brewing with corn itself is different. This point, frankly, is the only one that holds water. Even then, however, it’s a bit (here we go) corny. Yes, higher quality grains result in a higher quality product the same way that better grapes create better wine. So yes, an argument likely exists that brewing with a higher quality fermentable corn product over corn syrup will lead to a better final beer. But, come on: We’re talking about Bud Light, Miller Lite, and Coors Light here. This isn’t Chateau Lafite Rothschild complaining that their competitors are making wine with Welch’s grape juice. All three beers are mass-market products sold at an affordable price point. If subpar ingredients are the root of such criticism, then a finger should be pointed at all three brands before it’s pointed at any one brand.
And yet, I am going to point a finger at Bud Light anyway because this whole ad came across as misleading, not to mention that it also has a bit of a throwing-stones-in-a-glass-house element. That’s two big dillys in my book.