(Published in Enrich magazine 2010)
IT'S ALMOST WIDELY ACCEPTED that drinking a glass of red wine daily might be good for your health. That’s because research has shown the abundant antioxidants in red wine seem to protect the body from heart attacks while also raising the levels of HDL (the good cholesterol) in the blood. What’s not that well known, however, is that beer has half the concentration of antioxidants in red wine and drinking beer in moderation could be as healthy an activity as a glass of red wine.
To claim a "healthy beer" exists would quickly be derided as pure tripe by teetotalers, health gurus and the intensely pious, however. Others would describe the phrase "healthy beer" as an oxymoron (a contradiction in terms) similar to other oxymora such as “dry beer,” “hard liquor” and “dry Martini.” But then, a “healthy beer” would be a totally ludicrous concept to those who still consider beer as “The Devil’s Brew”.
On the other hand, there’s a growing body of medical data that seems to point to the unsettling conclusion beer might indeed have some health benefits. And that the key to unlocking these benefits is drinking beer in moderation, moderation, moderation.
The world held its “1st Beer & Health Symposium” a decade ago. This and subsequent symposia—while raising cynics’ eyebrows—sought to drive home the audacious conclusion “. . . beer is a well-balanced, low-alcohol beverage with significant levels of vitamins (in particular folates), minerals and silicon. Regular, moderate beer drinking may be a part of a healthy lifestyle together with wholesome food, exercise, keeping your weight down and not smoking”.
These claims aren’t all that surprising if one recalls previous studies that show all alcoholic drinks are linked to a lower risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) or heart attack. The groundbreaking Framingham Heart Study conducted from 1949 to 1966 in the USA showed moderate drinkers had 50 percent fewer deaths from CHD than non-drinkers. CHD is the leading cause of premature death in the Philippines and the developed world. It’s also the seventh leading cause of sickness in our country, according to the Department of Health.
This stunning benefit from moderate alcohol consumption, also called “The French Paradox,” can be assumed to be due to a drink’s alcohol content, whether the drink be red wine or beer. But also to moderate drinking. The concept of a “healthy beer” might not be so farfetched, after all.
Drink in Moderation
The sea change that now recognizes health benefits can be had from moderate alcohol consumption is best illustrated by modifications in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The official recommendation in 1990 was that “wine has no net health benefit.” In 1995, that recommendation was changed to “. . . if you drink alcoholic beverages, do so in moderation, with meals, and when consumption does not put you or others at risk.”
Quantified, “moderate drinking” means downing one to three drinks a day for most men, and one to two drinks for most women. A “drink” is this case is defined as a one-fourth liter glass (250 ml or some 12 grams by weight) with a strength of four to five percent alcohol by volume. This is the equivalent of half a pint of beer in the United Kingdom.
The American Heart Association (AHA) noted that if you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. AHA said men can down one to two drinks per day while women can take one drink per day. It defines a drink of beer as one weighing 12 fluid ounces or 355 ml. It cautions people who don’t drink alcohol not to begin drinking if they don’t already drink.
This data on moderate drinking, however, refers to healthy adults (mostly Caucasians who have larger physical builds than Filipinos). It’s also prudent to remember that the effect of one drink on a woman is almost equal to the effect two drinks have on a man.
This is because factors such as gender, body size, experience and food intake influence one's capacity to resist drunkenness. On average, a healthy person can metabolize or remove alcohol from his body at the rate of one-half ounce of alcohol per hour. Because of this snail’s pace, drinking in moderation remains the only sure way to ward of drunkenness.
The famous San Miguel Pale Pilsen (a pale lager) has an alcohol content that is five percent by volume or four percent by weight. The familiar San Mig bottle holds 320 ml of beer. In contrast, San Miguel's Red Horse Extra Strong beer has an alcohol content of seven percent in a larger 500 ml bottle.
Should it be called a Beer Belly?
Beer, the world's most popular alcoholic beverage, is made from malted barley (also called a starch source that will be converted to alcohol), cereals, hops (for flavor) yeast and water. These ingredients are organic substances that also help maintain a healthy, balanced diet, according to healthy beer advocates. The grains used to make beer also contain silicon that helps boost bone density.
To make beer or brewing beer, barley is sprouted (or malted), a process that increases the nutritional value of the cereals used. Sprouting also increases the vitamin content of beer. Despite this fermentation process, beer remains about 90 to 95 percent water with a relatively low alcohol content. Beer ranges from less than three percent alcohol by volume (abv) to around 14 percent abv.
Dr. Erik Skovenborg from Denmark, regarded as an expert on the effects of moderate alcohol consumption on health, said in 2001 that moderate drinking means drinking within the limits of your own health, always taking into account your family and friends. It’s a definition almost similar to that in the 1995 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. He noted most men and women tend to drink moderately, and argued a distinction should be made between the moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages and alcohol abuse or alcoholism.
He also said there isn’t a definite answer as to whether beer is fattening. The “amber nectar,” however, must be drunk in moderation and at meal times to head off weight problems. According to some studies, the infamous “beer belly” linked to obesity in beer drinkers might not be due to the beer at all but to other factors such as the consumption of food high in calories and rich in fat.
In addition, alcohol should never be imbibed along with potentially addictive medicines such as tranquillizers, sleeping pills and barbiturates. Persons with stomach, liver or pancreas problems shouldn’t drink alcoholic beverages. Taking either aspirin or paracetamol before or after alcohol consumption can seriously damage the stomach lining and should be avoided.
HDL and Antioxidant Benefits
Data was presented to members of the European Parliament and Europeans at the 2nd Beer & Health Symposium in Belgium in October 2001 to support the case for the benefits of a moderate consumption of beer. Among these contentious pieces of scientific evidence is the alcohol in beer could increase serum levels of HDL; that alcohol’s an antioxidant; that drinking moderately may protect the heart from future heart attacks and that beer contains vitamins vital to the body.
Proponents of moderate beer and alcohol drinking say the amount of HDL in the blood increases when alcohol is consumed. Higher levels of HDL have been shown to be associated with a lower risk of coronary heart disease. One glass of beer a day can significantly increase HDL levels, according to some research.
The antioxidant benefit derived from beer is due to cereal grains such as malted barley. Cereal grains are a good source of antioxidants. One study showed that beer (both light and dark varieties) high in antioxidants generally have a high content of “polyphenols” that may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer by still undefined mechanisms. Beer contains half the amount of antioxidants in red wine but more than twice that in white wine per drink of equivalent alcohol content. One bottle of wine is equivalent to six glasses of beer.
It’s not that well known but beer also contains vitamins. Beer is rich in most of the B- vitamins such as riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), panthothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), biotin (B7), folate or folic acid (B9) and Cobalamin (B12). Research has shown that taking more Vitamin B9 or folates may provide protection against cardiovascular disease and cancer. An adequate folate levels is vital for the normal functioning of the enzymes responsible for healthy DNA.
To derive the most out of the health benefits accruing moderate beer drinking, one must also make healthy lifestyle changes such as having a healthy diet and regular exercise. No, it doesn’t mean drinking more beer. That would be alcohol abuse, which is dangerous both to the drinker’s health and to the safety of those around him. And remember there’s strong scientific evidence heavy drinkers don’t benefit from the significantly reduced CHD risk that comes only with moderate drinking.
Drinking too much or too fast causes headaches, nausea and a loss of control and judgment, all of which are dangerous and must be avoided. Sadly, drunk driving remains a leading cause of road accidents worldwide. Data from the Philippine National Police show drunk driving incidents rose by over six percent, or from 692 cases in 2008 to 735 cases in 2009. In the USA, some 11,800 persons died as a result of drunk driving accidents in 2008.
“Everything in moderation. Nothing in excess,” is a laudable aphorism to remember when drinking beer, wine or any alcoholic beverage.