The Truth About Beers
By Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
WebMD Expert Column Beer, the sweet nectar of the gods, is the alcoholic drink of choice for thirsty American adults.
Invented before history was recorded, beer has been an important part of life for centuries and the great tradition of beer continues. Beer is the world's most widely drunk alcoholic beverage and probably the oldest.
In the U.S., drinking beer is a social tradition and an all-American pasttime that goes hand in hand with ball games, card playing, darts, backyard barbecues, and special occasions such as Super Bowl Sunday.
Here's what's in beer -- from calories to carbs to trendy high-gravity beers -- and its potential health risks and benefits.
Americans drink mass quantities of an ever-expanding variety of beers. The Beer Institute's Brewers Almanac estimates that Americans drank almost 6.5 billion gallons of beer and malted beverages in 2009.
However, beer consumption has been slowly declining since 1994, when the average American drank 22.3 gallons, compared to 21.1 gallons in 2009.
Pale lagers are the major beer styles and the most commonly drunk beers in the world.
Matt Simpson, beer sommelier and columnist for Beer magazine, says overall, there is a slight decline in the drinking of pale lager macro beers (such as Budweiser, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and Miller) but there is a huge demand for the trendier craft beers.
"People are beginning to realize there is an expansive style of beers beyond pale lagers, which are light and refreshing, but the trendier brews have more flavor, aroma, and complexity to meet a broad range of palates," Simpson says.
High-gravity beers are just one of the many craft beers gaining in popularity. A high-gravity beer simply means an increased amount of sugar that increases the specific gravity of the beer and results in a higher alcohol content. Brewers are adding more sugar and other ingredients at the beginning of the brew process in an attempt to create more complex and uniquely flavored beers -- not necessarily to increase alcohol content. These beers are more expensive, more flavorful, and are meant to be appreciated and even paired with foods, like wine.
With such a wide range of craft beers available, many restaurants are hosting beer dinners to showcase how beers pair naturally with a wide variety of foods.
Avid wine drinkers are starting to recognize the value of and enjoy high gravity and other drier, more acidic craft beers, Simpson says.
What's in Beer?
Beer is commonly made from a recipe of water, grain, hops, and yeast.
Malted barley is the most common carbohydrate source that is usually flavored with hops, which add bitterness, balances the sweetness of the malt, and acts as a preservative. Finally, brewer's yeast ferments the brew into alcohol.
Brewing is the process that converts the carbohydrate source into sugary liquid called wort, which is converted into alcohol through the yeast fermentation process.
Beer's alcohol content ranges from less than 3% to 40% by volume, depending on the beer style and recipe. Most pale lagers are around 4% to 6% alcohol by volume.
Creating Craft Beers
There are an infinite number of options to create a wide range of flavorful craft beers, such as varying the ingredients or the brewing techniques.
Some brews use alternate grains like wheat, maize, or rice instead of barley and flavor the brew with agents such as fruits, herbs, and spices to create unique-tasting beers.
The carb or starch is the essential ingredient determining the strength and primary flavor of the beer. Wheat beer uses wheat as the starch, whereas high-gravity beers have more carbohydrates and thus higher alcohol levels.
Beer color is determined by the malt and ranges from pale amber to dark brown, depending on the degree of roasting. Dark beers like stout and porter get their color by using dark roasted malted barley.
Beer Is Good for You -- in Moderation
It might seem unlikely, but beer (just like any wine, spirits, or other alcohol), when consumed in moderate amounts, has health benefits.
"The strongest evidence suggests alcohol of any kind can increase good cholesterol, reduce the risk of heart attack by 30%, and thereby provide cardiovascular benefits," says Harvard researcher, Eric Rimm, ScD.
He says that "there is some evidence that alcohol can increase insulin sensitivity and reduce the risk of diabetes and because beer contains plenty of fluids, it may help lower the risk of bladder cancer and kidney stones due to the added volume."
Wine, beer, and spirits each contain a little nutritional goodness from the basic ingredients used to make the alcohol.
Beer is made from hops, yeast, and grains, which contribute carbohydrates, a small amount of B vitamins, and potassium. But experts don't suggest getting your nutrients from beer.
Be sure you are clear about the definition of moderation.
Experts recommend beer or any alcohol be consumed responsibly, only by adults, and in moderation defined as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.
One drink is defined as 12 ounces of regular beer.
Health experts don't recommend that anyone start drinking beer, or any other alcoholic beverage, for health benefits.
Health Effects of Too Much Beer
Overconsumption of beer or any other type of alcohol is risky.
"Heavy alcohol consumption wipes out any health benefit and increases risk of liver cancer, cirrhosis, alcoholism, and obesity. Heavy or binge drinkers may have increased risk of stroke, chronic hypertension, weight gain, colon and breast cancer," says Rimm, a member of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines advisory committee.
An estimated 75% of men and 65% of women in the U.S. drink alcohol, with only a modest number engaging in binge drinking, Rimm says.
Of course, if you are going to drink, do not drive.
Beer and the Beer Belly
Despite conventional wisdom, beer is not necessarily the cause of the beer belly.
"Too many calories, of any kind, can result in a beer belly," says Hillary Wright, RD, a nutrition consultant for the National Beer Wholesalers Association.
Beer is fingered as the culprit of the abdominal pouch because it is easy to drink too much.
"Liquid calories are easy to overdo because you don't get a sense of fullness and with the average 12-ounce beer containing 150 calories, it adds up quickly," Wright says.
Further, alcohol makes you hungry and the types of foods typically served with beer promote mindless munching of high-calorie snack foods.
Many people sporting the beer belly don't usually have great diets or get enough exercise, Rimm says.
Wright suggests choosing light beers that contain 64-105 calories if you want to enjoy more beer without excess calories, especially on occasions such as watching the Super Bowl, when most people eat and drink too much.
Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, is director of nutrition for WebMD. Her opinions and conclusions are her own.