UK authorities have suggested adding vitamins to beer, to protect against brain disease. Consumers are used to their food being manipulated to make it healthier: fat is removed, vitamins and minerals added. But that does not mean they are complacent, and certainly not willing to forgo freedom of choice. The furore stirred up by Scotland’s plans for vitamin-enhanced beer demonstrates just how swift and forthright the opposition to ill-judged ideas can be.
Ministers in Scotland are considering proposals to add thiamine, also known as vitamin B1, to ales and beers to help prevent alcohol-related brain diseases. The vitamin helps stave off Wernicke’s encephalopathy and the closely related Korsakoff’s psychosis, which affect a small number of heavy drinkers.
But the suggestion has drawn howls of derision from the public, alcohol safety activists and scientists. Critics say the move removes individual choice and undermines warnings of the dangers of drinking. Members of the scientific advisory commission on nutrition have also raised questions of legality and labeling, while others add concerns about practicality and ethics.
In fact, vitamin B1 is routinely added to a host of foods, from breakfast cereal to bread. But in recent years manufacturers have gone beyond simply fortifying breakfast cereals with added vitamins and iron.
Functional foods and nutraceuticals – foods or additives that demonstrate health benefits beyond their basic nutritional function – have opened up important new market sectors. Cholesterol reducing spreads such as Benecol and yogurts that contain “friendly” bacteria, such as Yakult, are among the category’s success stories.
So why has the beer additive plan been greeted with so much scorn, while people are willing to adopt functional foods? The key questions surrounding additives boil down to what they are in and what they do. Demand is strong for products that offer choice and clear health benefits – but adding vitamins to beer falls flat on both counts. The health benefits are questionable, yet consumers would not have the choice to avoid them as they would be in all beers.
The stiff opposition to vitamin-enriched beer certainly reinforces the message that consumers’ attitudes to food additives are complex and emotional. Amid the countless product launches every year, understanding them will be essential.