A few months ago, my Twitter and Facebook streams bustled with chat about a blog post titled “The Shocking Ingredients in Beer,” written by a self-described “Food Babe.” The Babe told her readers that based on a year-long investigation on her part, she’d discovered that mainstream beers contain dangerous, often mysterious, ingredients—beaver anal glands! GMOs! Corn syrup! GMO corn syrup! Bottom line, she reported: Avoid beer (or any alcohol) and especially mainstream beer. If you must drink, she told readers, stick to organic, gluten-free, and local brews. “With cheap beer—you are not just getting a cheap buzz, you are getting the worst of the worst.”
Curious, I hied myself over to the Babe’s website, where I learned that she was a marketing consultant and entrepreneur. For $17.99 a month (or $119.88 a year), I could buy her monthly eating guide, complete with shopping list and recipes. (“Want to lose weight, feel great, and get healthy from the inside out?”)
But once past glossy ads for her own products and those she promoted, as well as detailed lists of her media mentions and television appearances, it was obvious that The Babe was a modern-day version of a 19th-century snake oil salesperson. She peddles food and nutrition nonsense but her real product is fear: She feeds readers just enough to scare the bejesus out of them—GMOs, MSG, and beaver anal glands!!!—and then offers her own wisdom as a beacon to guide them to safety. (As a Twitter friend pointed out, she’s likely aiming for guest spots on, say, Dr. Oz’s show, another romp into the factual Twilight Zone. My guess is that she’d like to bounce Doc Oz and take over his show.)
As for the Babe’s facts, well, I’m neither a brewer nor a scientist, but even I knew that those were nonsense. Bare minimum, one fact tripped my internal alarm: As evidence of beer’s dangers, she cited information from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CPSI). Because I’d written a history of beer in America, I knew that the CSPI has a decades-long policy of condemning alcohol and lobbying for neo-prohibitionist legislation. As a source of information, the organization is untrustworthy, unreliable, and demonstrates a chronic disregard for science (weird, given the group’s name).
Seven years ago, I would have rolled my eyes and moved on. Heck, seven years ago, I might have believed The Babe. But not these days. That’s because I’ve spent those seven years researching and writing a history of meat in America. As part of that project, I’ve followed an ongoing “food debate” here in the United States. This isn’t the place for a detailed discussion of that debate, but briefly: Critics argue that Big Ag has driven family farmers off the land and replaced diversified agriculture with a monoculture devoted to (GMO) corn and soybeans. Big Ag is handmaid to Big Food, which manufactures foods from GMO-tainted crops, corn syrup, and other seemingly toxic ingredients.
On the other side, farmers and food makers argue that large-scale agriculture, including the use of GMOs, and “factory” food production are necessary in order to feed huge populations and keep consumer prices low. Frankly, the “debate” is more shouting match than even-handed exchange of views. Advocates on both sides spew mis-information and bad science in order to score points with consumers and would-be donors.
But after seven years of following that debate, I know this is true: noisy, self-interested confrontations like it are counter-productive and dangerous. When advocates misuse science and fact in order to score points, we all lose. That’s especially true now, when when any fool with an idea can and does use the interwebs to promote misinformation and generate paranoia and fear, and then tout him or herself as the expert who will lead the frightened to safety.
The Food Babe, for example, is extracting profit from that swamp of misinformation. She feeds her readers a mishmash of bad science and half-truths, and then offers her wisdom as the beacon that will guide them to safety. That she’s peddling nonsense is irrelevant. She’s found profitable, low-hanging fruit and she’s reaping its rewards.
So what?, you say. Ignore her.
And I would have except for this: Many people in the beer community retweeted, shared, and linked to the Babe’s blog post as if her “investigation” merited attention and her facts were accurate. Worse, many of those busy retweeting and sharing hadn’t bothered to read, let alone question, what The Babe had written. Rather, their reaction was knee-jerk pure and simple: We know GMOs and corn syrup are bad, and an expert—The Babe—has learned that some beers contain GMOs and corn syrup, and the beers in question are those mainstream bad beers, and score another point for craft beer and, hey! I’d better warn my friends. (To their credit, many of my online friends deleted their shares once they were tipped off to the facts.)
But I was bothered more by something more dangerous than knee-jerk-driven tweets. For seven years, I’ve watched for-profit and non-profit organizations and corporations use precisely that kind of misinformation to attract supporters and raise funds. It required no stretch of an imagination on my part to envision a purity war erupting in the brewing industry, with some brewers latching on to the Babe’s nonsense to one-up the competition and score points with consumers. “Our beer is 100% GMO free.” “We don’t use fish bladders or beaver anal glands.” “Our brewery is a corn-syrup-free zone.” As far as I was concerned, nothing good would come of allowing The Babe’s self-interested mischief to spread, virus-like, among the growing audience for good beer.
That’s why, just a few hours after reading her post, I reached out to beermakers, professional and homebrewer alike, and asked them to help set the record straight. Over the next few weeks, we put together a comprehensive point-by-point response to The Babe’s nonsense. I posted it at my site, where it’s had some 20,000 reads—probably not as many as the few million Babe’s original post probably enjoyed, but better than nothing.
So to you, dear readers, I reiterate that well-worn cliche (with a reminder that every cliche rests on a core of truth): Don’t believe everything you read on the interwebs. Practice responsible digital citizenship. Take the time to find facts. (And it can be time-consuming; you may have to go past the first page of Google results.)
The stakes are high. The brewing industry is reaching record numbers of consumers and the last thing last thing that brewers need is for those new good-beer converts to encounter a purity war and a morass of misinformation.
Maureen Ogle is a historian and the author of Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer.