Consumer Council study reveals hidden health risks and mislabelling in prepackaged beers

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AI-generated image for illustration purpose only.

15th April 2024 – (Hong Kong) The Consumer Council tested 30 prepackaged beers, revealing startling facts about the caloric content, discrepancies in alcohol volume, and the presence of hazardous substances like mycotoxins and biogenic amines in popular canned and bottled beers. These findings have sparked a critical discussion about the transparency and safety of alcoholic beverages that are staples at many social gatherings.

The study’s results are a wake-up call for those who indulge in beer without considering its nutritional impact. According to the research, consuming just one can of beer can lead to an energy intake of over 200kcal, roughly the equivalent to a bowl of rice. Regular consumption could lead to significant weight gain, with the study estimating about a five-pound increase over three months if two cans are consumed daily. Beyond the caloric content, beers with higher alcohol percentages also pack more calories, complicating consumers’ ability to make healthier drinking choices.

One of the more troubling findings from the Consumer Council’s study is the inconsistency between labeled and actual alcohol by volume (ABV) percentages. Out of the 30 beers tested, six showed significant discrepancies, with four displaying ABV values at least 0.5% higher than advertised. This not only poses a risk for consumers trying to manage their alcohol intake but also raises questions about labelling regulations and enforcement.

The presence of biogenic amines and mycotoxins in beer samples is perhaps the most alarming revelation. Biogenic amines, which can cause a range of symptoms from headaches to severe respiratory issues, were found in varying levels across all samples. More concerning was the detection of deoxynivalenol (DON), a mycotoxin known for causing acute gastrointestinal illness, in one of the beer samples. These findings underscore the potential health risks lurking in what many consider a harmless beverage.

Among the samples, Coopers Brewery and Carlsberg had the highest levels, detecting 5 and 7 types of biogenic amines, respectively, including particularly high levels of putrescine and cadaverine. Excessive intake of biogenic amines can lead to health issues such as headaches, dizziness, vomiting, respiratory distress, and in severe cases, cerebral haemorrhage.

Furthermore, the Consumer Council discovered significant discrepancies in the alcohol content of 20% of the samples compared to their labels. Four samples had an alcohol content that was higher by 0.5% or more than labeled, while two were found to have alcohol levels more than 0.5% lower than stated.  Harbin Maidao beer showed the largest discrepancy; its label stated “equal to or more than 3.7% alcohol,” yet tests revealed an actual alcohol content of 4.67%. This represents a variance of 0.97% from the lowest labeled value.

The manufacturer of  Harbin Maidao  beer clarified that the product tested has never been imported or sold in Hong Kong, being exclusively produced and sold in mainland China. The product is not intended for sale in other regions, and the entire production and sales process complies with mainland China’s relevant laws and regulations. Regarding the alcohol content, the company stated that the test results are consistent with the mainland standard GB/T 4927-2008.

 Harbin Maidao 
Coopers Brewery

The study highlights significant gaps in the regulatory framework governing alcoholic beverages. Current laws do not mandate comprehensive labelling of all ingredients and nutritional information in alcoholic products, leaving consumers in the dark about what they are truly consuming. This lack of transparency is not just a minor oversight—it has real-world implications for consumer health and safety.

In light of these findings, several recommendations have been put forward:

  • Stricter Labeling Laws: There is a clear need for more stringent regulations around the labeling of alcoholic beverages, particularly concerning accurate ABV information and the inclusion of all nutritional data.
  • Public Awareness Campaigns: Increased efforts to educate the public on the potential health impacts of alcohol consumption are essential. These should focus not just on the risks of addiction and long-term consumption but also on the immediate health risks posed by substances found in beers.
  • Industry Standards: The alcoholic beverage industry must adopt higher standards of quality and transparency. This includes better sourcing of ingredients to avoid contamination with harmful mycotoxins and clearer communication with consumers about product contents.

Beer samples tested by Consumer Council.