Last semester in Prof. Bart Elmore's History of Capitalism seminar graduate students wrote Op-Eds on a topic of their choosing. Cody Patton wrote the following piece, which was also published in the January 21st issue of The Columbus Dispatch.
Low Carb, Calorie Counts Don't Make Hard Seltzer Healthy
by Cody Patton
In 2017, Americans guzzled around 1.9 billion gallons of light beer, one of the most popular alcoholic beverages in the United States. By 2019, however, the low-calorie pilsner faced an unforeseen adversary: hard seltzer.
Popular brands White Claw and Truly contain a slim 100 calories, two grams of carbohydrates and less than three grams of sugar per can. With a staggering sales growth rate of 164 percent in July 2019 alone, hard seltzer appears to be an industry disruptor.
Despite its apparent novelty, hard seltzers utilize strategies pioneered by American brewers throughout the 20th century to portray their products as “healthy.” These marketing mechanisms include stressing the caloric content of beer while downplaying the impacts of alcohol despite the danger it poses to human health.
Prior to Prohibition, advertisements featured doctors to endorse beer’s “healthful” aspects. In 1906, the Becker Brewing and Malting Company of Ogden, Utah, advertised that a doctor’s prescription for their beer made a sick woman healthy again.
This trend continued after Prohibition’s repeal in 1933. The United States Brewers’ Association invited Dr. Shirley W. Wynne, a former New York City Commissioner of Health, to speak at its convention in 1936. Wynne claimed, “There are many food fads and fallacies in the minds of the people but none more erroneous than the belief that certain foods are in themselves fattening... And BEER is not fattening.” Wynne blamed consumers’ beer bellies on overeating, not the “liquid bread” in their cups.
Doctors no longer advertise beer but manufacturers use modern understandings of calories and carbohydrates to attract health-conscious consumers. Originally released in the 1970s, light beer was marketed with an emphasis on its low calorie content. Economists Victor and Carol Tremblay state that Miller promoted Miller Lite as less filling, “which implied that one could drink more Lite in a sitting.”
Light beer made its debut in a market saturated with low-calorie foods and drinks, like diet soda. In her study of artificial sweeteners and diet food, historian Carolyn Thomas argues that low-calorie foods and beverages are designed to “sell products not create thin people.” Thomas demonstrates that Americans tend to consume more when they think they are consuming less.
Hard seltzers, like their light-beer predecessors, encourage consumers to fixate on their lack of calories, carbs, and sugars instead of their 5% alcohol content. A can of White Claw, for instance, displays its 5% ABV, yet the “healthy” attributes of the beverage — its lithe 100 calories and gluten-free status—surround the number.
A publication of the Modern Brewer from 1937 scolds Ohio brewers for featuring alcohol content in their advertisements. The author quips that “nothing could be more stupid than advertising that attempts to lead people to believe that beer has a ‘kick.’”
Between 1935 and 1995 federal law, fearing consumers would gravitate toward stronger drink and spark “strength wars” among brewers, banned alcohol content on beer labels. Deemphasizing alcohol helped brewers combat prohibitionists in the 1930s but also laid the groundwork for promoting beer’s nutritional aspects, like its calorie content.
Hard seltzer continues this legacy. While the calorie and carb count make hard seltzer diet compatible, a study published in 2018 in The Lancet — one of the world’s oldest and most esteemed medical journals — demonstrates that any amount of alcohol, keto-friendly or not, is harmful to human health.
Not only can alcohol be unhealthy, but people 18-24 years of age, hard seltzers’ target market, most frequently binge-drink, or consume four or more alcoholic beverages in a two-hour period. College students report drinking ten cans of White Claw in a day, not feeling ”‘bloated’” while also feeling ”‘very drunk.’” Hard seltzer’s popularity suggests that young Americans are gravitating toward a false sense of “guilt-free” binge-drinking.
Hard seltzer is all the rage and now fuels college ragers. Yet, very little is revolutionary about its marketing — focusing on low calorie and carb content while downplaying the danger of alcohol. When one pairs recent science illuminating alcohol’s harmful effects with the product’s drinkability, hard seltzer sounds more dangerous than refreshing.