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.
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.