A recent Daily Mail article announced that: “Beer is officially good for you”. The article claimed that beer “reduces heart risk” and “improves brain health”. Even if “heart risk” sounds a bit vague, the news sounds good.
But let’s take a closer look at the evidence. The Daily Mail cites the source of the research as The American Journal of the Medical Sciences. The journalist even provides a quote from the study, which was published in 2000:
The antioxidant content of beer is equivalent to that of wine, but the specific antioxidants are different because the barley and hops used in the production of beer contain flavonoids different from those in the grapes used in the production of wine.
The Daily Mail article goes on to say that beer can help to reduce the risk of developing diabetes and heart disease, it can protect cognitive function and it can boost levels of high-density lipoprotein (so-called good cholesterol) – although it’s not clear if the journalist is citing the study at this point or a nutritionist.
Before we look at whether or not beer is good for your health, we first need to look at what’s in beer.
Beer is made from four primary ingredients: grain (mainly barley, but it could be other grains), hops, yeast and water. Table 1 provides a summary of the nutrients found in a 330ml serving of beer.
Beer also contains micronutrients called polyphenols. Some of these polyphenols, such as flavanoids, flavanols and phenolic acids, have known health benefits, although a lot of the research has focused on wine, not beer.
But what about the specific health claims made in the article? Does beer really reduce “heart risk”? Most studies on beer suggest that low to moderate consumption could reduce the risk of heart disease. The reported effects are similar to those found in wine.
The Daily Mail article also claims that beer can “boost brain health”, although the evidence for this is somewhat shaky. A recent study that tracked 550 men and women over the course of 30 years, concluded that alcohol consumption, even at moderate levels, is associated with negative changes in the brain.
Alcohol and mortality
Previous alcohol studies showed a J-shaped relationship between alcohol consumption and mortality, suggesting slightly higher mortality for teetotallers, slightly reduced mortality for light and moderate drinkers, then an increase in mortality for heavy drinkers. However, the latest research, using more complete data, suggests that the relationship between alcohol and mortality is actually linear – the more alcohol you drink, the more likely you are to die prematurely. The only age group for whom moderate alcohol consumption still seems to be associated with reduced mortality are women over the age of 65.
It should be noted that the UK guideline for alcohol intake is 14 units for men and women, which equals about five pints of a 5% alcohol beer per week.
Ultimately, the healthy properties found in beer such as flavanoids, flavanols and phenolic acids can also be obtained from non-alcoholic plant-based food and drinks. So don’t be fooled by the eye-catching headlines; beer may have some health benefits, but that doesn’t mean it’s the healthiest way to obtain those benefits.
It should also be noted that the study quoted by the Daily Mail concluded: “There is no evidence to support endorsement of one type of alcoholic beverage over another.”
Senior Lecturer and Sport
Sheffield Hallam University