Nearly 100 million viewers tuned in to watch Super Bowl LIII or, in many cases, to watch what are commonly thought of as some of the year’s best commercials. Companies such as Anheuser-Busch InBev spent as much as $5 million for 30-second spots to convey information, or as MillerCoors alleges in a lawsuit filed in federal court in Wisconsin on Thursday, disinformation.
At issue: MillerCoors alleges that the other beer giant’s ads regarding the use of corn syrup are misleading (the Super Bowl ad claimed that Bud Light has "100 percent less corn syrup than Coors Light”). The suit accuses Anheuser-Busch of false advertising and federal trademark dilution. MillerCoors seeks an injunction to stop Bud Light from continuing the ad campaign and is asking for a trial by jury and for the defendant to pay its legal fees.
MillerCoors claims corn syrup is no longer in Coors Lite and Miller Lite beer after the brewing process.
So, it’s there at the beginning of brewing but gone by the end?
Consumers are unsure. Google “Is there corn syrup” and it autofills with “in Bud Light,” “in Miller Lite,” “in Busch Light” and “in Coors Light.”
Mike Harting, chief executive of 3 Daughters Brewing in Florida, explains why the specific sugar in the beer-making process doesn’t matter much.
“When you ferment and make alcohol, you need a sugar source, and historically those sources are local or regional. Sake is made from rice for a reason. You can use wheat, corn, sugar cane, rice. In the U.S., it’s traditional to use wheat products to give a bolder flavor and more of a body. The issue with using all barley or wheat is that they have a higher caloric content; corn or rice is used for light beer because they are lighter and, frankly, cheaper.”
In the end, it’s moot. “The yeast eats most of it.”
Harting’s craft brewery is launching an all-corn beer on Friday, a tongue-in-cheek rebuttal to what has come to be called “corngate.”
Corn syrup and high-fructose corn syrup have become nutritional boogeymen in recent years.
Bonnie Liebman, nutrition director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, thinks this is largely an issue of labeling and psychology.
“How did high-fructose corn syrup become demonized? My sense is companies started saying on food labels, ‘no high fructose corn syrup,’ in the way you can say ‘gluten free,’ and people then think gluten is bad. Corn syrup is no worse for you than table sugar or any other kind of sweetener.”
Ordinary table sugar consists of a molecule of fructose linked to a molecule of glucose, half and half. Corn syrup is straight glucose. High-fructose corn syrup is made by converting some of the glucose in corn syrup to fructose. Liebman says HFCS may have become associated with ill health because it’s the sweetener frequently used in soft drinks. That’s because it’s cheap and plentiful. But it’s no worse for you than things that sound healthy, like brown rice syrup.
There’s evidence that sugary drinks lead to weight gain and are linked to a higher risk of diabetes and heart disease. But, Liebman says, these light beers have, at most, one gram of sugar. Chump change in the scheme of things.
According to MillerCoors, Anheuser-Busch’s Super Bowl and subsequent ads about corn syrup were about negative marketing. They released a statement on Thursday that said, in part: “Anheuser-Busch has admitted that its campaign was designed to mislead the public. Anheuser-Busch is fearmongering over a common beer ingredient it uses in many of its own beers, as a fermentation aid that is not even present in the final product. This deliberate deception is bad for the entire beer category. We are showing the world the truth.”
In a February interview with Food & Wine, Andy Goeler, Bud Light’s vice president of marketing, was asked, “Doesn’t the fact that there’s more Google searches for [corn syrup] now prove that people didn’t quite know what it was and that they need to look it up after the fact?” To which he responded, “Yeah, and I think that’s awesome.”
Gemma Hart, Anheuser-Busch’s vice president of communications, released a brand statement about the suit, standing by the advertisement’s assertion.
“The recent Bud Light campaign is truthful and intended to point out a key difference from Miller Lite and Coors Light. Those beers are brewed with corn syrup; Bud Light is not. These are facts. MillerCoors has admitted to using corn syrup on its website, in social media, in a full-page ad thanking Bud Light following the Super Bowl, and even in the lawsuit itself.”
After the corn syrup ads, MillerCoors parried with anti-Bud Light ads of its own. Obfuscation and confusing claims about competing brands is nothing new, and it seems to be on the rise. Two weeks ago, Clif Bar ran a full-page print ad in the New York Times, an open letter to Daniel Lubetzky, the founder and CEO of Kind, challenging his company to switch to organic ingredients.
Lubetzky, in a recent phone conversation with The Washington Post, said about the scuffle, “We focus on providing people nutritionally whole foods, that’s what we think is best for people’s health. Clif Bar is 30 percent sugar and uses some organic ingredients.”
Lubetzky has fired back by asking the FDA to update the nutrient content claim regulation to add disqualification thresholds so that empty calorie products with high amounts of negative nutrients (like sugar) can no longer make nutrient content claims.
This bar fight underscores how nutrition information can be weaponized. The irony is that alcoholic beverages aren’t required to list nutritional information. It’s only when you make specific claims — low calorie, low fat — that nutrition labels are required. And in this beer battle, all the warriors are lite-weights.