Beware the garbage served up by ‘viral’ sites

17 Apr

newcastleThis is probably not breaking news to anyone, but there’s a lot of garbage on the internet. What continues to surprise, however, is how easily people buy into it.

The latest example is something called Viralscape, which looks to be a month-old website devoted to “the most viral stories online.” That’s about all that can be deciphered about the site, since it has no “about” section, descriptions, contact information, writer names or even publication dates on its posts. But of course, it serves up ads.

Despite all those warning bells, people are still sharing “stories” that appear on the site. One such listicle caught my eye on Wednesday and made my blood boil, since it deals with a topic I hold dear: beer. In “8 beers that you should stop drinking immediately,” Viralscape – through an unknown author on an unknown date – presumes to tell readers what beers they should and shouldn’t drink. As of my writing this, the article had been shared more than 217,000 people on Facebook and 1,149 people on Twitter. And yet, the article is utter bullcrap.

The criteria for a beer to qualify in this elite eight-some is for it to contain one or some of a list of ingredients, including genetically modified corn and sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, caramel colouring and even insect-based dyes.

Leading the pack is Newcastle Brown Ale. As the article states, consumer should avoid it because “the Newcastle beer has been found to contain caramel coloring. Class 3 and 4 caramel coloring is made from ammonia, which is classified as a carcinogen. ‘The one and only’ beer with cancer causing qualities.”

In actuality, Newcastle fans can probably relax because there are several errors in those few sentences alone. For one, caramel coloring is one of the most common food and beverage additives in the world. As per Wikipedia, it’s found in “brandy, rum, and whisky, chocolate-flavored confectionery and coatings, custards, decorations, fillings and toppings, potato chips, dessert mixes, doughnuts, fish and shellfish spreads, frozen desserts, fruit preserves, glucose tablets, gravy, ice cream, pickles, sauces and dressings, soft drinks (especially colas), sweets, vinegar, and more.” Caramel coloring is in fact so pervasive, it’s next to impossible to avoid. Viralscape’s highlighting of it in one particular brand of beer tells us all we need to know about this story.

But there’s more. The additive is not “made from ammonia,” but rather through heat treatment in the presence of the chemical. It’s a subtle but important difference: Newcastle drinkers are in fact not chugging ammonia, nor are they any more or less likely to get cancer because of it.

Caramel colour has also been deemed perfectly safe, with different acceptable usage limits in different countries. In 2011, the European Food Safety Authority – a body known for being considerably more stringent than the U.S. Food and Drug Administration – tested the various types of the additive in response to concerns about their effects on children in particular. Its conclusion: “Based on all available data, the panel concluded that these caramel colours are neither genotoxic, nor carcinogenic and that there is no evidence to show that they have any adverse effects on human reproduction or for the developing child.”

Viralscape gets even dumber with its skewering of other beers, such as Budweiser and Guinness, because they contain either genetically modified organisms or high-fructose corn syrup (also known as glucose-fructose in Canada). Even Europe, which has long opposed GMOs, is on the verge of finally accepting them so this seems like an archaic argument, especially when there is little credible scientific proof that genetically engineered crops are harmful.

As for high-fructose corn syrup, there are perhaps few food and beverage ingredients that have been so unfairly maligned. While it certainly isn’t as “healthy” as regular sugar (whose own health qualities are dubious), HCFS also doesn’t deserve to be scapegoated for the growing obesity problem, especially in the United States. Experts note that consuming it isn’t the big problem, it’s that people are consuming so much of it – and that it’s usually coming bundled with a bunch of other crap. As one doctor puts it: “We are consuming HFCS and sugar in pharmacologic quantities never before experienced in human history – 140 pounds a year versus 20 teaspoons a year 10,000 years ago. High fructose corn syrup is always found in very poor-quality foods that are nutritionally vacuous and filled with all sorts of other disease promoting compounds, fats, salt, chemicals, and even mercury.”

The Viralscape article also incorrectly states that GMOs are being banned everywhere (quite the opposite, obviously), as is HFCS, which is patently untrue.

I could go on about the many other problems in the article, but it’s probably clear by now that it was done with about as much thought and research as most people put into their daily bathroom visit. Now, if only people could put a little more thought into the quality of articles they share online.

UPDATE: Here’s a bunch of actual brewers debunking much of another similar article that Viralscape apparently ripped off.

1 Comment

Posted by on April 17, 2014 in media


One response to “Beware the garbage served up by ‘viral’ sites

  1. Alasdair

    April 19, 2014 at 4:12 pm

    This sentence stands out as a perfect example of the pure rubbish being peddled in the article: “said to may be potentially harmful to your health” – which is just three ways (said to be, may be, potentially) of admitting that they don’t have a leg to stand on.

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