Craft Beer Benefits

In the Winter 2011 ADATIMES (a publication for the members of the American Dietetic Association), dietitians discuss the benefits of Craft Beer, which is local beer that is brewed on a small scale.  For one, the darker the beer color does NOT mean the higher the alcohol content. Karl Siebert, PhD, professor of Biochemistry at Cornell, states that, “what affects a beer’s color is whether dark malts are used.”

A Toast to Good Health: Craft Brew Trend Brings New Attention to the Benefits of Beer

By Andrea Giancoli, MPH, RD

“Red red wiii-i-iiine, stay close to me-e-e-eee…” So goes the popular Neil Diamond song remade by nearly a dozen music artists over the last 40 years. Red wine may enjoy cultural cachet and a reputation for health benefits, but like most consumers, I’m a beer drinker. When the social conversation turns to the eminence of wine and its healing powers, my love for a crisp lager (and, of course, my duty as a registered dietitian) compels me to assert that, no, wine doesn’t cure heart disease, and the active ingredient is ethanol—so any alcoholic beverage would offer similar benefits to those touted by the wine community. But alas, my declarations often fall on deaf ears and I whimper into my $5 beer while my friends delicately sip their $12 glasses of red wine. At least I have that: Beer is kind to the wallet.

But as interest in artisan brewing gains momentum and emerging research reveals unique nutrition properties, craft beer is finding redemption not only as a classy libation with deep roots in nearly all cultures, but as a bevvy with benefits.

The Buzz on Beer

While craft beer isn’t exactly taking over the market (representing less than 7 percent of total beer sales in the U.S., according to the Brewers Association), it is causing folks to sit up and take notice.

A recent report from global research group Mintel shows that 33 percent of all beer drinkers in the U.S. are consuming less imported beer because they’re opting for domestic craft beer instead. In addition, nearly 60 percent of beer drinkers say they like to try craft or microbrew beers, and 51 percent would try more if they knew more about them, suggesting consumer education is the key to cultivating growth in the artisan beer market.

This is precisely what the Discovery Channel’s new program Brew Masters aims to do, unlocking a fascinating history of beer making, recreating ancient ales from around the world and adapting techniques and ingredients for innovation.

“Some of the more exotic and bold styles of beer that have gained traction in the American craft brewing community include imperial India Pale Ales, sour ales, fruit beers, wheat beers and extreme or exotic beers that don’t follow any existing style parameters but incorporate exotic ingredients or processes to create something totally unique,” says Sam Calagione, host of Brew Masters. “Ingredients that are used in this capacity include pumpkin, fruits, herbs, cocoa, spices and grapes.”

“Foodies and wine-lovers are quickly discovering that craft beer has all of the complexity, food-compatibility and diversity of wine for a fraction of the price,” adds Calagione, who founded Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Rehoboth Beach, Del., in 1995. “Whereas you need to be a millionaire to afford the world’s best wines, anyone can afford world-class beer.”

The slow but steady progress in the perception of beer is also due to its promotion worldwide as an accompaniment to food.

“We are starting to get buy-in from high-end restaurants,” says Kieran Haslett-Moore, beer specialist for wholesale distributor and retailer Regional Wines & Spirits in Wellington, New Zealand. “Fine dining restaurants increasingly are offering a good range of beers, using beer in cooking or organizing matching events.”

“Fifteen years ago, the average consumer had a pretty limited understanding of the diversity of the beer world,” says Haslett-Moore, founding member of Society of Beer Advocates and also a judge at the BrewNZ competition recently featured on Brew Masters. “This has improved in large part due to the promotion of hoppy pale ales in the U.S. tradition. Craft beer is definitely a niche, but it is growing.”

And certainly the growth of the craft beer craze sees no signs of slowing down. According to Julia Herz, craft beer program director for the Brewers Association in Boulder, Colo., total beer sales were down nearly 3 percent by volume while craft beer sales were up by 9 percent in the first half of 2010.

“The demographics of craft beer lovers tend to be, give or take, 70 percent male and 30 percent female,” says Herz. “The fastest-growing segment of craft brew consumers is the millennials, and we’re very excited that the craft brewing culture seems to resonate with them.

The Health Benefits of Beer

While red wine is often touted as the heart-healthy libation, it is primarily the ethanol that imparts significant benefits to counter atherosclerosis—and moderate consumption of any alcoholic beverage, including beer, increases HDL cholesterol, lowers LDL cholesterol and reduces the risk of blood clotting by lowering fibrinogen and blood platelet aggregation. Moderate alcohol consumption has also been associated with a lower incidence of gallstones, decreased risk of type 2 diabetes and improved cognitive function in older adults.

Beer specifically has been associated with additional health outcomes. Beer was found to lower the risk of kidney stones in men compared to other alcoholic beverages, possibly due to its high water content and diuretic effect. Compounds in hops may also slow the release of calcium from bone that is implicated in kidney stones.

In addition, moderate alcohol consumption is associated with greater bone mineral density; however, moderate beer drinkers seem to have a more protective effect because of the high content of silicon in beer.

Beer Nutrition Breakdown

Because beer is made using the plant sources barley and hops, it contains a considerable amount of nutrition, even more so than red wine. Some folks refer to beer as a “sandwich,” an ode to its alleged origins in ancient Egypt, where it is believed beer was made by fermenting bread.

Macronutrients, Water and Alcohol

Like wine, beer is fat free. Carbohydrates, which make up about one-third of the calories in beer, mostly come from partially broken down starch. Protein, which is nearly non-existent in wine, is present in small amounts in beer—about 4 percent of the total calories.

Alcohol (ethanol) calories make up roughly two-thirds of the calories in a regular beer, as opposed to 86 percent of calories in wine. The typical American beer ranges from 90 percent to 94 percent water and averages 4.6 percent alcohol by volume, or ABV. Most beers are between 3 and 6 percent (but many beers can be upwards of 10 percent and some are much higher). Wines are between 12 percent and 14 percent ABV. Because the average beer has a lower ABV and more than two and half times as much water, it contributes to fluid intake more so than wine.

Fiber for the Imbiber

Although the USDA Nutrient Database lists beer’s fiber content as zero grams, it turns out there is a discrepancy with respect to fiber, according to George Philliskirk, PhD, director of the Beer Academy in the United Kingdom.

“Official methods of measuring dietary fiber in foods are not applicable to beverages; hence international food composition tables report zero dietary fiber in beer and other beverages,” he says. “However, researchers in Spain utilized a specific method and estimated a dietary fiber content of beer.”

In fact, their study “Dietary Fiber Complex in Beer,” published in a 2009 Journal of the American Society of Brewing Chemists, found lager to contain 2 grams of soluble fiber per liter while a dark beer has 3.5 grams of soluble fiber per liter. For a standard 12-ounce serving size, that equates to approximately 0.75 grams for a lager and 1.3 grams for a dark beer. An earlier study, “Dietary Fiber in Beer: Content, Composition, Colonic Fermentability, and Contribution to the Diet” referenced in Beer in Health and Disease Prevention (Academic Press 2008), found both lagers and dark beers contained 2 grams of soluble fiber.

BeerOutshines Wine with Many Micronutrients

One 12-ounce regular beer contributes folate, vitamin B6, niacin, pantothenic acid and riboflavin. Beer is also a plant source of Vitamin B12, supplying about 3 percent of the recommended daily amount for adults, according to the USDA Nutrient Database (although other sources claim higher B12 contents in beer).

“This is not derived from the cereals or the yeast used in beer production, but from bacteria that are found to naturally colonize the barley grains prior to their conversion to malt for use in brewing,” says Stephen Livens, senior policy advisor for the British Beer and Pub Association. “Vitamin B12 produced by these bacteria remains very stable and will survive within the process all the way into the final package [keg, can or bottle].”

Although wine and beer are neck-and-neck when it comes to mineral composition, each providing some potassium, magnesium, phosphorus and fluoride (the latter presumably contributed through the water source), beer is the winner when it comes to selenium and silicon.

Pondering Polyphenols

Red wine may have more polyphenols and antioxidant power in test tube assays than beer, but that doesn’t mean the human body can use them for benefit. In fact, very few studies have been conducted on the absorbability of polyphenols from food and beverages, which is key before claiming health benefits.

“There are obviously much higher levels of polyphenols in red wine than in beer, and they are more complex,” says Charles Bamforth, PhD, DSc, professor of malting and brewing sciences at the University of California-Davis and author of Beer: Health and Nutrition (Wiley-Blackwell 2004) andGrape vs. Grain: A Historical, Technological, and Social Comparison of Wine and Beer (Cambridge University Press 2008).

“What really matters is, do the molecules get into the body and do they do a job? One of the few studies that have convincingly demonstrated that an antioxidant does get into the body was the one that showed that ferulic acid entered the body more efficiently from beer than it did from a tomato,” although achieving absorption still does not prove a role of ferulic acid in health.

While much credit for the health benefits of red wine has been attributed to resveratrol, according to Bamforth, “when you look at the resveratrol study, the levels used in those trials were vastly in excess of what you’d be able to consume in a day from drinking wine.” The amount of wine one would have to drink would cause more damage than good.

Choose Your Brewski

While nutrient analyses refer to an average “regular beer,” there are more than 100 different categories of beer—and the brewing process, ingredients and proportions used can influence the nutritional content of each.

Some areas where alterations in ingredients and the brewing process produce noteworthy nutritional variances include:

– The more malt in the brew, the more B-vitamins.

– The more sugar in the wort, the more alcohol.

– The more hops, the more phytochemicals.

– “Light beers” are brewed either to be lower in alcohol, carbohydrates or both.

– Similarly, “low-carb” beers are typically brewed to remove the carbohydrates.

– Darker beers may have more fiber.

From a food safety perspective, notes Karl J. Siebert, PhD, professor of biochemistry at Cornell University, beer is always safe to drink no what matter where you are in any country. This is for a number of reasons, including alcohol content, the bitter compounds that stop the growth of some bacteria, and also the low pH making it an unfavorable environment for bacteria.

“It is possible to get some spoilage organisms that might ruin the flavor and make unsightly hazes, but none of the human pathogens can grow in beer,” says Siebert. “And it’s in the log of the Mayflower that the reason they stopped where they did is because they ran out of beer. No joke. They were planning to go further south.”

Whether you’re exploring the cultural roots of an ancient beverage, expanding your culinary prowess, supporting a local brewer or just enjoying a cold one, remember that moderate consumption means one 12-ounce beer per day for women and two for men. Cheers!

Giancoli is a consultant in Hermosa Beach, Calif., specializing in food and nutrition policy.


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Paul Bain on February 17, 2011 at 10:10 am

    A friend an I actually developed an iPhone app to find craft beer, you can find it on iTunes here:


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