‘Beer has a bad image – it is more often associated with drunken football crowds than health-conscious, discerning drinkers,’ says Dr George Philliskirk of The Institute of Brewing and Distillery, who specialises in yeast research. ‘But when drunk in moderation, beer provides a wider range of health benefits than wine.’
Worries about ending up with the dreaded barrel-shaped beer belly put many people off enjoying a pint. But according to Dr Philliskirk, blaming a rotund figure on beer is misguided.
‘Glass for glass, beer is less calorific than wine,’ he says. ‘It is the lifestyle that gives a beer-drinker a belly, not the drinking itself. Although the volume of beer consumed is generally more than wine, if you limit yourself to a pint a day you are consuming only a few more calories than if you drank a large glass of wine.’
On average, beer contains about 180 calories per pint, while a large glass (250ml) of red wine contains 160 calories.
Although too much alcohol is dehydrating, a single pint of beer is more effective at rehydrating the body than the equivalent amount of water, according to a study at the University of Granada in Spain.
The scientists monitored 40 students – with half drinking beer and half drinking water after exercising in a 40C environment. They found that the carbon-dioxide bubbles in beer not only made the drink feel more thirst-quenching but increased water absorption, while the carbohydrates in beer replaced lost calories .
‘It could be that the better hydration levels are also down to the sugars and salts found in beer,’ says Dr Philliskirk. ‘It is a good source of potassium – which is needed after exercise to help rehydrate.’
Beer is also rich in B vitamins – particularly riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pyroxidine (B6), folate (B9) and cobalamin (B12) – necessary for maintaining energy levels and building new muscle tissue. Although amounts vary, Dr Philliskirk says a pint could provide about ten per cent of the recommended daily intake (RDI) of some B vitamins.
‘Beer is in no way empty calories,’ says Charles Bamforth, Professor of Malting and Brewing Sciences at the University of California, Davis. ‘It contains far more nutrients than any other alcoholic beverage.’
Professor Jonathan Powell, the head of MRC Human Nutrition Research at Cambridge University, says: ‘Beer could be considered as doubly good for bones – small amounts of ethanol [alcohol] inhibit bone loss, while the silica enhances the speed and quality of bone formation.’
There is no RDI of silica, but according to the latest research, those who have more than 30mg a day have the highest bone density. The amount of silica in beer varies greatly, from between 6.4 to 56.5mg per litre.
‘Whatever beer you drink, you are likely to get a significant amount of silica,’ says Prof Powell.
Beer is also rich in fibre – just one pint contains about ten per cent of your RDI of soluble fibre, while some varieties contain up to 30 per cent.
‘This fibre is broken down to form prebiotics which help promote the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut,’ says Prof Bamforth. ‘Research has shown that low doses of alcohol, including beer, stimulate appetite and promote bowel function in the elderly.’
The alcohol and hop content also make beer mildly antibacterial. Studies have found that regular beer drinking helps prevent the growth of helicobacter pylori bacteria which leads to stomach ulcers. The hop content also promotes the secretion of gastric juices needed for effective digestion.
Studies have shown that a small intake of alcohol can slow and even prevent age-related brain disease such as Alzheimer’s.
But beer has the added benefit of being a more mentally stimulating drink, according to Dr Philliskirk.
He says: ‘People are more likely to drink wine alone than beer. Drinking beer has been a social occasion for centuries.’
In addition, many people do not wish to, or cannot, drink strong alcoholic drinks for health reasons. ‘Beer is more inclusive because of the low alcohol content yet there is enough in it to have a relaxing effect,’ adds Dr Philliskirk.
The average beer is between three and 5.5 per cent alcohol and wine between 11 and 14 per cent.
‘People feel more convivial after a small amount. Indeed, beer “happy hours” have been trialled at nursing homes in Germany and the United States. Elderly residents not only made an occasion of having a drink but engaged in good conversation.