The Goodness of Beer

By Dr. Charlie Bamforth, University of California, Davis

There has been huge interest in the potential benefits of moderate consumption of alcohol since the 1991 airing of the television program Sixty Minutes: The French Paradox, in which the first strong touting was made for taking a glass or two of red wine daily to counter the risk of atherosclerosis (blocking of the arteries by cholesterol). Since then, the wine lobby has never fought shy of using this platform to advocate for their product, claiming that the active ingredient is a molecule called resveratrol that originates in the grapes.

A vast amount of data now exists to show that the key component that counters atherosclerosis is alcohol itself—and it can come from whichever is your favorite tipple. You would need to drink dozens of bottles of wine every day to get enough resveratrol to have any impact.

Moderation Is Key

One or two glasses of regular strength beer daily should be the goal. The frequency is as relevant as the quantity; and no storing up your week’s allocation for the weekend: that is binging.

Beer and WineBeer Is Healthier Than Wine

Beer contains more nutrients than does wine. Beer contains some soluble fiber, some B vitamins (notably folate, visit Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Folate), and a range of antioxidants. It is also the richest source of silicon; silicon in the diet may help in countering osteoporosis—learn more. Wine contains more antioxidants than beer, but, do they actually get into the body and reach the parts where they are needed? There are doubts about that; but, it has been shown that the antioxidant ferulic acid is taken up from beer into the body (more efficiently than from the tomato).

Some normal components of beer may induce symptoms in sensitive individuals, the most notable example being proteins claimed to be deleterious for sufferers of celiac disease. Medical advice is for such patients to avoid foodstuffs derived from wheat and barley—hence the interest in beers that are based on sorghum. However, it is by no means proven that traditional beers contain sensitive proteins: these substances are changed enormously in processing and may no longer be a problem in any beer. Most with celiac disease err on the side of caution.

Learn more about gluten-free options in Gluten-Free Doesn’t Mean Craft Beer-Free by John Holl.

What We Do Know About Beer and Health

  • Alcoholic beverages may beneficially impact the body; directly by affecting bodily functions, or indirectly by boosting morale and perceived well-being.
  • We have already peeked at atherosclerosis, alcohol favorably impacting the balance of “good” versus “bad” cholesterol, and also reducing the risk of blood clotting.
  • Drinking has been linked to increased blood pressure; however, it has been reported that the blood pressure of non-drinkers is higher than in those consuming 10 – 20g alcohol per day. Hypertension is a significant risk factor for stroke, but it has been observed that there is a reduced risk of stroke for light to moderate drinkers. It is only when drinking is heavy (>6 drinks per day) or at a binge level that the risk of stroke is significant.
  • The bacterium that induces stomach and duodenal ulcers, helicobacter pylori, is inhibited by alcohol so there are reports of reduced chance of ulcers through moderate drinking.
  • The risk of pancreatitis is increased in heavy drinkers.
  • Those consuming alcohol in moderation—and especially daily—develop fewer gallstones.
  • Moderate drinking reduces the risk of developing diabetes.
  • Alcohol hangovers are likely caused by a buildup of a breakdown product of alcohol.
  • Migraines may also be induced by biogenic amines found in relatively small quantities in beer, but, in more significant quantities in certain wines and cheeses.
  • Moderate drinking is associated with a reduced risk of dementia and improved cognitive function in the elderly.
  • Beer is more diuretic than water. Beer is superior to water in “flushing out” the kidneys, thereby lessening the risk of kidney stones. Some beers should be avoided by sufferers of gout because they can contain significant quantities of purines.
  • The literature is contradictory on the link between alcohol consumption and cancer. For every study that draws a correlation between alcohol consumption and a particular form of cancer, there is another that finds either no link or even a protective impact of moderate drinking.
  • Finally, the beer belly is a complete myth. The main source of calories in any alcoholic beverage is the alcohol. Take in too many calories and you know the consequences—whether it is from wine or beer! And if you compare a beer with a slice of lemon meringue pie, with perhaps twice as many calories, then it is a no-brainer! Learn more: BBC News: Why the Beer Belly May Be a Myth.

Dr. Charlie BamforthDr. Charlie Bamforth is an Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor of Malting & Brewing Sciences at UCD. He is a Special Professor in the School of Biosciences at the University of Nottingham, England, and was previously Visiting Professor of Brewing at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland. Charlie is a Fellow of the Institute of Brewing & Distilling, Fellow of the Society of Biology, and Fellow of the International Academy of Food Science and Technology. Bamforth is Editor in Chief of the Journal of the American Society of Brewing Chemists, is on the editorial boards of several other journals, and has published innumerable papers, articles, and books on beer and brewing.