SALT LAKE CITY — Is a six-pack of beer healthier if it doesn’t contain corn syrup? Does grapefruit-flavored water spiked with alcohol count as fruit?
Some of this year’s Super Bowl ads suggested that alcoholic beverages can be produced in ways that make them good for our health, despite a global consensus among health officials that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption. And previous suggestions that vitamins be added to alcoholic beverages has raised concern that such an action could be construed as promoting drinking.
After Sunday night’s Super Bowl game between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams, Budweiser got more attention for its ad about the ingredients in its light beer than for the one featuring its iconic Clydesdales, which have charmed football fans in the past.
The ad claimed that, unlike other brands, Bud Light is brewed without corn syrup, a sweetener found in many soft drinks. Corn syrup, according to the Mayo Clinic, is “chemically similar” to table sugar, which has become a nutritional villain in recent years.
“At this time, there's insufficient evidence to say that high-fructose corn syrup is any less healthy than other types of sweeteners. It is known, however, that too much added sugar of all kinds — not just high-fructose corn syrup — can contribute unwanted calories that are linked to health problems, such as weight gain, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and high triglyceride levels. All of these boost your risk of heart disease,” the Mayo Clinic says on its website.
Meanwhile, an ad promoting Bon & Viv Spiked Seltzer enticed viewers to try a combination of sparkling water and alcohol with “fruit botanicals like pear elderflower” and “zero grams of sugar.”
“Yeah, seems too good to be true, but let us tell you, they myth is real,” say “Bonnie” and “Vivian,” the spokes-mermaids who claim to have founded the company.
Although viewers may come away thinking the company was founded by two women, that myth is also untrue.
“The brand was actually founded by a fellow named Nick Shields back in 2013 when it was simply called Spiked Seltzer,” Eater magazine reported. “AB InBev acquired the brand back in 2016 and decided to rebrand it as Bon & Viv Spiked Seltzer — a play on the phrase “bon vivant” — to help it stand out from the rest of the fizzy water pack.”
Also, the product’s website reveals the beverage, in addition to purified water, contains a “blend of cold-fermented corn sugar” and 4.5 percent alcohol, which is about the amount in 12 ounces of beer.
While these and other alcohol ads seek to capitalize on a lucrative market for products seen as promoting health, some people have argued that alcoholic beverages should contain actual vitamins, similar to bread, milk, orange juice and other household staples.
Writing for the nonprofit online publication Undark, Dr. Jacob Appel recently advocated for “vitamin-enriched alcohol,” saying that fortification could counter some of the ill effects of alcohol consumption.
Appel, who is a psychiatrist and bioethicist in New York, said a condition called Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome frequently occurs in Americans with severe alcoholism. The condition is caused by a deficiency of thiamine, also known as vitamin B1, and in severe cases, affects a person's muscle control and memory.
“Able-bodied men and women develop a severe and irreversible amnesia that wipes clean their pasts and prevents them from forming new memories. Those who survive — and many patients don’t — are often relegated to nursing homes," Appel wrote.
Appel said many cases of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome could be prevented “with appropriate public health measures,” to include fortification of alcohol beverages. He notes that salt is fortified with iodine, dramatically reducing goiters, and that folic acid added to flour has reduced birth defects.
Appel is not the first person to argue for the fortification of alcoholic beverages. An analysis published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1978 advocated for the practice, too.
But Appel notes that addiction experts and the American Medical Association have opposed fortification of alcohol, "fearing that it will convey the message that imbibing is healthful." He disagrees, saying fortification fits into emerging policies of "harm reduction," which includes controversial practices such as needle exchanges and supervised injection sites for drug users.
"Of course, treating and even curing alcoholism should be a long-term goal. But one ought not mount that revolution, so to speak, on the backs of today’s chronic drinkers," Appel wrote.
No safe level
Writing in Men's Health magazine, Paul Kita noted that this year's Bud Light ads made a lot of people angry, to include the manufacturers of Miller Lite and Coors Light (which purportedly contain corn syrup), and the National Corn Growers Association.
Men's Health asked registered dietician Chris Mohr to weigh in on the debate. Mohr said the presence or absence of corn syrup doesn't matter "because those refined sugars are eliminated in the fermentation process anyway."
But sugar or no, this doesn't mean people who are concerned about their health shouldn't worry about drinking alcohol.
A major study published last year in the respected journal The Lancet concluded "there is no safe level of alcohol."3 comments on this story
Health officials in the U.S. say that men should have no more than two — and women no more than one — alcoholic beverages per day, but the nation's dietary guidelines do "not recommend that individuals who do not drink alcohol start drinking for any reason."
So, while Super Bowl ads can be fun, they shouldn't be considered health advice, as Men's Health noted.
"Rather than being concerned are arguing about the type of sweetener used to brew beer, worry about how much beer you're drinking," Mohr said in the magazine's report.