Catalyzing Solutions: Why is Corn Syrup in My Beer?

By RILEY O’SULLIVAN

The 53rd  Super Bowl was an evening of defensive football, a half-naked Adam Levine thrusting his groin to the world, and a multitude of high-budget advertisements. One of the most popular advertisements was offered by Bud Light, in which it coined the claim “corn-syrup-free beer.”

The Bud Light advertisement sparked outrage and confusion throughout the country. Fellow beer competitors, such as Coors Lite and Miller Lite, along with the National Corn Growers Association, felt attacked, as their reputations and businesses were particularly scrutinized. Furthermore, the advertisement left consumers thinking, “Why is corn syrup in beer, and should I be concerned?”

The science behind beer brewing is relatively simple. The beloved fermented, aqueous beverage consists of four primary ingredients: water, hop, yeast, and barley malt. The process begins with the preparation of “wort,” a sugary, non-alcoholic solution. Water and barley malt are then combined and heated to 60 degrees Celsius. At this temperature, the starch and proteins within the malt are broken down, by amylase and protease enzymes, into sugars and peptides. The resulting wort is then boiled, and hops are added. The hops add a particular bitterness and aromaticity that categorizes the beer, while also forming insoluble complexes with proteins and polypeptides, an important procedure that stabilizes beer foam and acts as a sterilizer.

After cooling and filtration, the yeast is added. The process of “anaerobic fermentation” then occurs, in which the yeast cells essentially “eat” the sugars present in the wort, and convert these sugars into ethanol and carbon dioxide, or alcohol and bubbles. The beer is then subject to the “conditioning” phase, in which the remaining yeast can continue to “eat” any existing sugars within the liquid. Once this process is finished, the beer is packaged and distributed.

The simplicity of beer brewing allows for augmenting particular steps, resulting in beers that have originality. One notable step that separates beers from one another is the choice in barley malt. The malt can come from any starchy grain, such as rice, wheat, or corn, all of which impact the strength and color of the beer. 

This is where Bud Light decided to separate their lager from their competitors. Light and refreshing lagers — such as Coors Lite — use lighter grains, like rice or corn. Despite the difference in malts, the yeast added during the brewing process essentially “eats” the entirety of the malt to produce alcohol and carbonation. In other words, even though Coors Lite and Miller Lite use corn syrup, the finished beer contains essentially no corn syrup at all.

The Bud Lite commercials were a unique opportunity to monetize on the national hysteria concerning high-fructose corn syrup, a common sweetener used in highly processed foods. Although Coors Lite and Miller Lite do not use high-fructose corn syrup, and use plain corn syrup instead, speculation could still arise. If anything, the commercials provided an opportunity to reflect on our vulnerability to advertisements, as well a greater possibility to learn more about the process of brewing beer. 

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