Super Bowl Budweiser Ad Brews Controversy Over Corn Syrup and Bud Light

Super Bowl LIII was so boring that the biggest controversy that came out of it was about corn. Bud Light ran two spots during the big game, one of which focused on the fact that Bud Light doesn’t include corn syrup — an ingredient found in its rivals Miller Lite and Coors Light. The attack on corn made the folks at the National Corn Growers Association “disappointed” and had viewers around the country asking: What’s wrong with corn syrup?

Corn syrup is an ingredient in Miller Lite and Coors Light, along with water, barley malt, yeast, and hop extract. Meanwhile, Bud Light is made from water, barley malt, rice, and hops. MillerCoors, which owns both of Bud Light’s rival light beers, took to Twitter to point out that “none of our products include any high fructose corn syrup, while a number of Anheuser-Busch [the maker of Bud Light] products do.” But while it’s true that corn syrup is a different product than high fructose corn syrup, placing the importance on this difference isn’t all that relevant.

High fructose corn syrup has become a dirty word in American food politics, although scientists agree that the health effects of high fructose corn syrup are the same as regular sugar. Too much of either ingredient is bad for our health and is hypothesized to contribute to the rising prevalence of American obesity. While once it was thought that there was a unique link between high fructose corn syrup consumption and obesity, now the broad scientific consensus is that there are no metabolic or endocrine response differences between high fructose corn syrup and sucrose.

Corn syrup — the actual ingredient involved in the creation of Miller Lite and Coors Light — and high fructose corn syrup start from the same place: corn starch. Starch is a chain of glucose or simple sugar, molecules chained together. When corn starch is broken down into individual glucose molecules, corn syrup, which is essentially 100 percent glucose, emerges. High fructose corn syrup is created when enzymes are added to corn syrup in an effort to turn some of the glucose molecules into another simple sugar called fructose.

The difference between the two variations is interesting, but when it comes to beers, it’s still moot. As the smart folks at Food and Wine point out, brewing ferments sugars into alcohol, which causes light beers to end up with almost no sugar despite what you put into them at the start. Many beers use barley as the source of sugar that makes alcohol happen, but barley makes beers dark, and other grains can be used instead. Bud Light uses rice for the same reason MillerCoors uses corn syrup — to provide the sugar that creates the alcoholic content in beer. Ultimately, Miller Lite contains fewer calories and fewer carbs than Bud Light.

Which is likely why the National Corn Growers Association can feel confident in calling out Bud Light for its corn-shaming. BudLight, in turn, bowed to Big Corn pretty quickly, responding on Sunday night that it “fully supports corn growers and will continue to invest in the corn industry.”

So again: Why do we care that Miller Lite and Coors Light use corn syrup? It could be argued that rice is of a slightly higher quality than corn syrup, which could contribute to a beer’s taste. But again, considering the brands we’re talking about here, that difference isn’t going to be much.

Bud Light VP Andy Goeler said in an interview on Sunday that the ad was important for “ingredient transparency,” perhaps referencing a 2014 turning point when the food activist known as Food Babe successfully got MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch to make their ingredients public after she became concerned that mainstream beers included high fructose corn syrup. Other Anheuser-Busch products, like Bud Ice and the effervescent Natural Light, use corn syrup.

What’s more likely happening here is that Anheuser-Busch is tapping into the controversy surrounding high fructose corn syrup, even though the other brands don’t include it in their beers. Bud Light is the largest beer brand in the US, but it is in decline, and Miller Lite has been attacking it by name in its ads since 2016. Focusing on corn syrup is a light lift in fear-mongering.

More importantly than all the social media bickering among beer companies, though, the simple fact is that if you’re trying to stay healthy by drinking beer, we have some bad news for you: You’re not.

In the end, this controversy is a manufactured rivalry that really doesn’t have to do with anything, which is really what the Super Bowl is all about.