Is there formaldehyde in beer?

This question was recently submitted by a reader, and to tell you the truth I did not know much about the formaldehyde in beer issue.  My initial reaction was "of course there is not formaldehyde in beer", but as I dug deeper into the research I began to grow concerned.

Now when I hear "formaldehyde" I think of preserving corpses… not exactly getting me in the mood for a cold one.  So to start off I figured a definition of formaldehyde was in order:

Formaldehyde: a chemical used in manufacturing and chemical industries, and as a preservative by anatomists, embalmers, and pathologists. Being exposed to formaldehyde may increase the risk of developing leukemia and brain cancer.

So not only do I now think of corpses, but now I have brain cancer on the brain…. I am really hoping this does not turn out to be true at this point.

As I began my research into this question, a few things became clear:

  • There appears to be some truth to the rumor in Chinese beers,
  • There does not seem to be strong evidence of this rumor outside of China
  • There does not seem to be a definitive answer on the subject

China appears to use formaldehyde

First of all, why on earth would breweries knowingly use formaldehyde?  As it turns out it is a very inexpensive clarifying agent that lightens the color of the beer and extends its shelf life.  Although some Chinese breweries claim that they have discontinued the practice, there are a number of beers sold in China that are very cheap and low quality (intended to be affordable to the masses), and it has been stated that these lower quality brews still use formaldehyde to keep costs down.

So how widespread is the use of formaldehyde in Chinese beer? I found a few articles dating back to 2005, where a representative of the China Alcoholic Drinks Industry Association (CADIA) is quoted as saying that 95% of the domestic beer in China has formaldehyde.  What was that?  Did you say 95% of domestic beers in China have a known cancer causing agent in them?  Not really making me want to drink a Chinese beer.

Furthermore, an article in the "People’s Daily Online" reported in 2005 that:

Chinese brewery giant Tsingtao has confirmed the safety of its product, saying the per-liter formaldehyde content of its product is much lower than the standard set by the World Heath Organization (WHO). The Tsingtao Brewery Co., Ltd. made the remarks in a statement it issued Friday in response to earlier domestic media reports putting Tsingtao beer’s formaldehyde content under suspicion. China’s State Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (SAQSIQ) also said that Chinese beer, including big-name Tsingtao beer, is safe to drink.

However, I did find some more recent resources stating that this practice is dying off (no pun intended) and that only some breweries are still permitting formaldehyde in the brewing process today.  I was also not able to find any reference to formaldehyde in any beers that China imports to other countries, as it appears to only be used in their domestic versions.

Finally, I came across a research study done in 2006 which concluded that:

Formaldehyde was measured in 29 beers [out of 84 tested] (including 7 imported brands) using solid-phase microextraction with on-fiber derivatization. Formaldehyde levels were between 0.082–0.356 mg/L. None of the beer samples exceeded WHO drinking water criteria for benzene, trihalomethanes or formaldehyde.
http://www.scientificsocieties.org/jib/papers/2006/G-2006-1102-469.pdf

No Evidence of Formaldehyde Use Outside of China

While I did come across a lot of discussion in online forums about formaldehyde in non-Chinese beers (especially beers from Southeast Asian countries), I was not able to find any evidence if this.  There is a great article I found that discusses this (specifically in reference to a Thai beer called Singha) located here: http://lewbryson.com/formaldehyde.htm

No definitive answer

In all of the research I conducted online, I was not able to find a clear definitive answer on the subject (besides the info on China).  There was a ton of forum discussions full of opinion and conjecture, but not much in the way of evidence.

Many folks felt certain that some Asian countries used formaldehyde in the brewing process, while others questioned the assertion and compared it to the rumor about urine in Corona.  Some of the most interesting discussions were very scientific in nature, with quite a few folks claiming that trace amounts of formaldehyde were a natural byproduct in beer.  Since I am not very strong in the sciences I have not gone into an in depth discussion of these arguments.

However, I did want to point out one study that was mentioned in the research report listed above.  In it they mentioned another study that looked at European beers:

Donhauser and co-workers9 examined beers from Europe, using a HPLC method, and showed that 65% of them contained detectable formaldehyde, although in many the level was close to the detection limit of 0.2 mg/L. (Donhauser, S., Glas, K. and Walla, G., Detection of formaldehyde in beer. Monatsschrift für Brauwissenschaft, 1986, 39(10), 364–368.)

This would seem to give some credence to the trace amounts argument, but I would love to hear from some other readers that are more versed in the sciences than I….. anyone know a little more about this?

All in all, formaldehyde does not appear to be a major concern for beer drinkers.  However, I would still be a little weary drinking a beer in China (but I don’t plan on visiting anytime soon so I should be safe…..)

Please let us know what you think about this issue in the comments below.

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33 Responses to “Is there formaldehyde in beer?”

  1. Jerry Says:

    What are the net effects of formaldyhyde in causing allergic reactions? Does it it increase the additive effects of plaque?

  2. Expat in China Says:

    I found this article by Google after buying a case of Siwo brand beer (pretty cheap here in Hangzhou, 3.6% vol alcohol) and seeing that the label claims “Free From Formaldehyde”. It never occurred to me that it would have such a chemical in the first place! From my searches it seems that it is less common today, even in local brands not intended for export.

    Good, but old, info here:
    http://www.pressinterpreter.org/node/186 (July 2005)

  3. Michael Says:

    I’ve been in Guangzhou, China for some time and find that drinking Chinese beers, even as few as one per night of the cheaper ones can give me terrible hangovers. If it’s not Formaldahyde there’s SOMETHING nasty in them.
    and… Yes. I’m drinking less.

  4. rtdietz Says:

    Hey Michael,

    Your experience seems to be a common one among folks I have talked to. No one seems to be able to explain why the “hangover issue” is so much more severe.

    I would be interested in hearing more from someone that understands the science behind formaldehyde and if it is a possible cause of the increased hangovers. As you mentioned it could also just be something else in there that is causing it.

    Thanks for commenting and hope to see you around,

    Beer-FAQ

  5. DJ Says:

    I was in the service and was stationed overseas many of times. Upon taking a drink of many different types of USA manufactured beer, there was always a different taste then State side beers. It seems as though everyone said that there was formaldehyde in those beers to preserve them for the long trips to overseas bases. I know of several service members that have past away of lukemia (which is associated to formaldehyde). Everyone knows that there seems to be a very high amount of drinking (when overseas) just to pass the time. Do you think that there could be any connection?

  6. John Says:

    I only drink the brew I make at home. I am bottling a Robust Porter this week.

  7. Rebo Says:

    when i was in the Navy in the early to mid 1980’s i also heard that formaldahyde was used as a perservative in U.S. beers sent to far-flung locations where U.S. servicemen drank it..there must be something to this, some sort of smoking gun?

  8. Chris Says:

    Li Quan beer in Guilin, China is notorious for formaldehyde. I stopped drinking it several years ago, but it is now often difficult to get Tsingtao in Yangshuo because of Li Quan’s heavy marketing tactics. Incidentally, it is an Austrian joint venture and the Austrians are infamous for putting anti-freeze in their wine!

  9. tek Says:

    I just want to point out that if the formaldehyde levels were tested to be within standards then it’s kind of silly to get overly paranoid about it’s carcinogenic effects. Lots of people get exposed to low levels of formaldehyde but in such low doses you’d have to be exposed for decades for it to really increase your risk of cancer significantly.
    Also I would point out that alcohol itself is a carcinogen!!! It’s actually pretty funny to get so freaked out over there being formaldehyde when you’re discussing an alcoholic beverage. If you’re really worried about cancers then you’d have to avoid alcohol entirely (this is why people diagnosed with cancer and then treated are often told to stop drinking).
    So yeah drinking all those beers might have increased the chances of people getting cancer but it’s very unlikely it was because of any formaldehyde and much more likely the alcohol.
    Not that it’s good to drink formaldehyde or anything, but it’s a little silly to hear the word formaldehyde and freak out without acknowledging the fact that the alcoholic beverage itself is a carcinogen.

  10. Gus Says:

    That’s all good and fair tek, but a majority of us are aware that alcohol is a carcinogen and it is up to the individual whether they drink it or not – at least they know what they’re drinking.

    The matter becomnes far more sinister when we are drinking contents that we are not informed about, therefore denying us to make the concious decision whether we want to consume a beverage for its contents.

    In addition, I would also be very cautious of any organisation/committee claiming somthing is safe to consume/use; there was a time it was claimed that asbetos was safe to use but there is no way anyone would claim that today. Just because someone says its safe to consume something doesn’t mean it is.

  11. Ron Williams Says:

    I worked in Stock Control in Chu Lai, Vietnam in 1969 and 1970. The big wooden containers that beer came in did in deed have a notice that this container contains beer with formaldehyhde. I inventoried incoming foods and other things. We did drink a lot of beer in Nam. Nothing else to do. I have no idea the content ratio. I do believe more needs to be looked into the effects of formaldehyde.

  12. Walt Says:

    I was in the US Navy from 1975-79 and while in the submarine servic I spent some time overseas(Spain,Portugal&Scotland).I heard about this phenomena and like to try the local beers anyways.There were sailors that would only drink the american beers because they thought this was safer.I think drinking spoiled beer would have been safer!

  13. Kye Says:

    I am currently living near Hangzhou, China and I also saw the sign on the front of a can of Siwo stating that it was ‘Free From Formaldehyde’. After being initially amusing, it then caused me to research into the matter a little bit to see how many brands could potentially contain it.

    Thanks for the info on here, letting me know I shouldn’t be too worried about it now. It saved me having to look much further.

    At least I can keep drinking Siwo!

  14. Navy Retiree Says:

    D. J.,

    I too am ex-military and I did question the strange taste of the American beers that were available overseas and was told also that, famaldehyde was used to preserve beer because of long shipment and long storage. As a sailor who enjoys a good cold beer, the taste I just never got use to, I hope that I and my ex-shipmates will be ok, and not develop cancer from our tours of duty.

  15. chilihed Says:

    I worked for Coors in the 80’s and it was well known then that all Budweiser products contained Formaldehyde and tannic acid as a preservative. This was known fact and was in print on some of our brochures that we handed out that compared Coors to other beers.

    I will not touch a Budweiser product even now!

  16. Andrew Says:

    The question is …only traces of formaldehyde or more? just by reading all this posts it seems that it should be more then ‘traces’. Or else why the weird taste? why all the fuzz? And when some of this Brands put on the label formaldehyde free..its clear we are not talking about “traces”. We will all end up embalmed like Lenin!

  17. Mike Says:

    In the early 70 I was in the Navy and overseas particularly the P.I. it was on the label of the beer. And one could sure tast it. Knowing what it was used for and the terrible tast, I choose to drink the local beer, this ofcourse after some time trying to figure it all out.

  18. joe Says:

    When I went to Korea in 72 I had a can of Bud as soon as I got there. The taste of formaldehyde was immediately and overpoweringly noticeable. I asked about it and they said it was added to beer going overseas to preserve it. At that time the only way it could get there was by boat and we all know how well beer ages. These days with air freight I doubt any reputable brewer would put any in. That leaves out China of course.

  19. bryan Says:

    It’s certainly possible that variations in formaldehyde levels could cause hangovers. It’s well documented that small quantities of certain chemicals present in bourbon and red wine drastically increase the effects a hangover. My colleagues have complained of worse hangovers in China, but some of this may be the method of ingestion. (those of you who’ve been on business probably know what I’m talking about.)

    Thinking about the taste of the beers, see this one: http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/dwq/chemicals/formaldehyde130605.pdf, which states that the taste threshold is 50 mg/L, much higher than the 0.356 mg/L stated in the 2006 article mentioned in the post. Of course, in those navy beers they could’ve used way more. There’s a multitude of reasons the beer could taste different though, from water, to longer shelf-time of the hops, etc. Hopefully wasn’t the formaldehyde though, seems like it’d take a lot.

    Vapor phase detection and respiratory irritation limits are lower, 0.2-0.5 ppm, but the vapor pressure of formalin (formaldehyde in water) is pretty low at room temp, so this doesn’t seem like much of a concern either at these concentrations.

  20. Jimbo Says:

    I was under the impression that ethanol was metabolised into formaldehyde, contributing in part to hangovers. The reason why doctors use ethanol to prevent alcohol poisoning is because your liver won’t metabolize the alcohol properly if there is still a certain amount in your bloodstream.
    This is also the reason why quitting alcohol cold-turkey can be deadly.
    Just what I’ve heard though, I’m no expert.

  21. Michael Says:

    From what I know there can often be a small amount of formaldehyde in alcoholic drinks. This tends to be less in fermented drinks (beer, wine, cider), but much more in liquors, especially non-clear. Formaldehyde has similar boiling point as alcohol, and it is a by-product of fermentation. However, the most significant amount will come from the body metabolizing it into a handful of different chemicals. Most common problem this causes in the short term is creaky joints, vitamin/mineral depletion, and so on. It can be filtered out slowly by the liver, but it can put a lot of strain on your body. Alcohol does penetrate every organ because it is a very small molecule so you will have these metabolites all over your body. With long term exposure, cancer risk goes up, but chances (unless you drink a lot) are you get more formaldehyde from things like your varnish, carpets, oil paints, and other things around the house.

    However, it is NOT the reason for DT or the possibility of death after quitting. These are cause by an increased amount of glutamate, the chemical which counteracts GABA, a chemical that alcohol, benzodiazepines, and many other sedatives act on. The problem with alcohol, is that it will eventually cause your body tolerance and addiction as it will stop producing natural GABA. Once this happens, and it happens very quickly, you start to see withdrawal symptoms. Alcohol can also be metabolized into glutamate as well, so it is a double whammy. When GABA is too low, and glutamate is too high, you start seeing symptoms, ranging from mild hangovers to seizures, coma and even death in some cases.

    Honestly, the bigger risk from alcohol, is addiction, death, incarceration, high risk behaviors, etc. When it come to formaldehyde, there are also much bigger carcinogenic worries out there. Have a beer, if you keep yourself in good health, don’t smoke, and don’t have a long family history you will be fine.

  22. Peter Says:

    Formaldehyde is an organic substance. CH2O in fact.

  23. ramon Says:

    I worked at Busch Gardens in Van Nuys Ca. in 1980 and had a talk with an assistant brewmaster and he told me that they do put formaldehyde in beer and draw it back off in a vacuum but don’t get it all. And that was why you could drink 1-2 beers and get a headache. I have since stopped drinking all Bud. products.

  24. Stella Says:

    What disturbs me about alcohol isn’t alcohol itself, it’s that the manufacturers aren’t required to list what’s in it. If our food (which is required to have labels) and water (which we can check on easily enough online) are full of horrible stuff, how much worse is it with beer, wine and liquor? Formaldehyde or no, as much as people like to drink, there needs to be a push for transparency.

  25. Guest Says:

    When you drink alcohol (in beer or any other alcoholic beverage), your body then breaks the alcohol down into many things, including some formaldehyde. This is indeed a major carcinogen – it causes chromosome damage, among other very negative things (like attacking your immune system). The formaldehyde is also then concentrated in the liver and other fatty tissues, becoming a long-term health hazard within your bodyfat. If you truly care about your health, it’s a no-brainer that you shouldn’t drink formaldehyde or consume anything that is broken down into formaldehyde within your body (like alcohol, or nutrasweet/aspartame, etc).

  26. Guest Says:

    On the other side of the coin: I personally really enjoy the taste of beer, but rarely drink it anymore since learning of the formaldehyde created when the body metabolizes alcohol. Still, I really miss the taste of a good beer, and often wonder if there may be a reasonably safe amount of beer that can be consumed without needing to worry too much about the formaldehyde aspect. Perhaps another reader here, with more knowledge about this issue than myself, can suggest what this reasonable amount of beer consumption might be – as I’d sure like to know…

  27. Guest Says:

    I am not knocking it but I have been told ( by other beer drinkers) that Miller lite has crazy stuff in it in order to get it to have a beer head

  28. Dave Says:

    It has often been said that Bintang beer in Indonesia ( also sold in Australia but made there or imported I do not know) is a common cause for beer drinking tourists to develop a severe rash. Local doctors often reccomend avoiding that beer as a probable cause due to the formaldehyde content.
    Rumour has it that it is used to speed up production time.

  29. ken blythe Says:

    according to my research and info. sources, all american premium beer are laced with added formaldehyde, with the exception of miller’s beer. this company produces beer with no additives or preservatives. as for most other beers,the brewers are a little secretive about their process except for german and dutch beer,they also do not add preservatives. kirin beer from japan,if it is brewed in japan and not by “budweiser ” has no preservatives. a small amount of formaldehyde occurs in the brewing process but,in insignificent amounts. the german beers that are brewed in this country do have added formaldehyde because you see lowenbrau is brewed and sold in this country by budweiser. and in case you are interested, foster beer is not an australian beer !

  30. The caretaker Says:

    I would think methanol in basic (ph above 7) solutions would have a tendency to form formaldehyde particularly at raised temperatures (pasteurization?). However acetaldahyde would seem to be a more likely culprate as ethanol plus a base could probably form acetaldahyde in the correct reaction conditions. Acetaldahyde is known to cause headaches. I seem to be rather sensitive – home brews and some microbrews I can drink two beers without headaches. I enjoy some yeast bodies in my homebrew, the b vitamin kick seems to turn it all around for me.

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