YES! But How? :: The Truth About Beer

If you’re looking for practical ways to live sustainably, just ask us.


When I sit down for a beer, how do I know if alcohol is the only harmful chemical I’m imbibing?

Traditional beer is brewed from four ingredients: water, barley, hops, and yeast; but there are few regulations in the United States about what goes into beer. Where the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms lets you down on labeling requirements, YES! is here to help.

Among the surprise ingredients in beer are high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), gelatin, silicone, polyvinylpolypyrrolidone (PVPP, a plastic), bisphenol-A (a toxic derivative of PVPP), chitosan (from shellfish), phosphoric acid, sulphur dioxide, and ammonia caramel.

The Food and Drug Administration says these ingredients are safe in the amounts found in beer, but those who prefer all-natural, organic, kosher, or vegetarian diets may not want them at all.

The German Reinheitsgebot is a time-honored purity law that limits the ingredients in beer to water, barley, hops, yeast, wheat malt, and cane sugar. Most German brewers leave other ingredients out of their beer.

Unfortunately, the clarification process for German and most other beers uses PVPP, which is filtered out before sale, but some studies say bisphenol-A and other toxic chemicals may leach out of the plastic first. Another clarifying agent is silica gel, which is non-toxic but inedible. Natural clarifying agents include isinglass, gelatin, diatomaceous earth, and Irish moss. The first two are animal products; the latter two are vegan. British ales are traditionally clarified using isinglass. You can avoid clarifying agents altogether with cloudy, unfiltered beer.

Those concerned about HFCS should be aware that many cheaper U.S. beers are brewed with it, but imported beers and microbrews use cane sugar or maltodextrin instead. You can also look for beers that are “kosher for Passover” or “100 percent organic.” Kosher rules prohibit the consumption of corn products during Passover. Regular “organic” beers can contain up to 5 percent non-organic ingredients, so HFCS may be present unless the label states “100 percent organic.” The FDA has no official definition of the word “natural,” so a label that says “100 percent natural” tells you little about the ingredients.

If gluten is a problem, some beers are brewed with another grain, like buckwheat or sorghum, in place of barley.

One sure-fire way to know what is in your beer is to brew it yourself. Spending less than $200 and a bit of time will have you making your own microbrews for less than half the retail price.

Otherwise, use these tips to make educated decisions in the beer aisle, and you should be able to sustain a healthy drinking habit right up until your liver function collapses. Cheers!

—Mary Richter

Send questions to YES! But How?, 284 Madrona Way NE, Suite 116, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110 or to [email protected]

Our Issue 50 Researchers:
Mary Richter wrote this article as part of The New Economy, the Summer 2009 issue of YES! Magazine. Mary, on the left in the photo, represents an unlikely collision between punk and hippie, wont to fling red paint on her own leather jackets. If her journalistic aspirations deflate alongside the economy, she hopes to spend her life digging holes.
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