When we think of Oktoberfest, we think of beer. In America, it’s arguably the only thing we know about this celebration. Since October is also when tailgating, er, football season kicks in, it may as well be national beer month. While this conjures up images of loud men with distended bellies, perhaps it’s time we gave beer another look. A bevy of recent studies seems to indicate that beer may well be the healthiest alcohol we can drink.
This idea may take some getting used to. We tend to see wine drinkers as beautiful and refined. Scotch drinkers are dashing impresarios. Fabulous hipsters favor the martini. And beer, well, you don’t exactly think Tony Horton or Shaun T. Whenever you see a fat guy in American popular culture, a beer is never too far away. Homer Simpson. Norm from Cheers. Willie from Bad Santa. Heck, we even call their slovenly looking stomachs “beer bellies.”
Is all this vilification justified? Maybe not. According to England’s Royal Society of Chemistry’s (RSC) recent study, Beer: Quality, Safety and Nutritional Aspects, beer is loaded with good things: proteins, vitamins, and antioxidants—even fiber. Taken in moderation, beer can offer a host of nutritional benefits.
A very, very brief history of beer in America
Beer has been brewed, in some form, in every culture for about as long as humans have inhabited the planet. But nowhere has it been more important from a cultural perspective than in Europe. When America was colonized, this European influence ensured that we’d become a nation of beer drinkers.
Originally, we were an ale country. When more Germans began arriving, in the mid-19th century, we started drinking more lagers. These lighter-style beers were more easily mass-produced and became the bastion of the early American breweries, run by guys like Pabst, Schlitz, and Miller.
The light—some would say watery—taste now associated with mass-produced American beer didn’t come around until World War II, when brewers started substituting the traditional ingredients of beer with more available ingredients. Bland became synonymous with “American beer” until the rise of microbreweries in the late 20th century. Now Americans are privy to more varieties and a larger selection of beers than any place on earth. The epicenter of the beer world now seems to be Portland, Oregon, which is commonly referred to as “Beervana.”
If beer is good, why are beer drinkers fat?
Before we discuss the benefits of beer, it’s important to note that beer isn’t some magical nectar of the gods. It requires moderation. The reason Homer and Norm have those bellies is that they don’t just drink one beer, they drink a lot of beer. A six-pack (a seemingly perfectly round number for many beer drinkers) of pretty much any beverage in a day is going to have some negative side effects, just due to the number of calories consumed. An excess of beer can be especially detrimental for three reasons: carbonation, calories, and alcohol. Carbonation can neutralize stomach acids and this hampers digestion, so people trying to lose weight should avoid beer with meals. Calories, well, we all know what calories do. The average beer has 150 calories. When Homer drinks ten beers, he’s consuming over 1,500 calories—before a donut even crosses his lips!
About 70 of those calories come from alcohol, an extremely controversial substance when it comes to its effects on the body. The over-consumption of alcohol is responsible for all sorts of nasty things, including cirrhosis of the liver and addiction. However, the RSC study, along with several other studies, indicates that two or three alcoholic drinks a day greatly reduce mortality rates, especially those involving cardiovascular disease.
That said, alcohol has also been found to inhibit muscular protein synthesis, which is the whole point of working out to begin with! So popping a cold one after that big basketball game or that P90X Workout Video probably isn’t the best idea. Best to wait a few hours.
One final note on the negative effects of beer. Germany actually has beer purity laws (enacted in 1516) that guarantee that their brews are made of nothing but water, hops, yeast, and barley. We have no such laws in America, so you never know exactly what you’re getting. Most of the bigger brewers put rice or corn in their beers to keep prices down. They can also load it with preservatives and chemicals. As a general rule, if you’re looking for a healthy beer, the smaller the brewer, the better the beer. In fact, most small brewers proudly boast about their ingredients.
So what’s so good about it, anyway?
Recent studies have been revealing many positive associations between beer and health. These include a lowered risk of cardiovascular disease, an improved mental state in women, and increases in life span. Drinking beer can help reduce homocysteine levels, lower triglycerides and LDL-cholesterol, and reduce blood clotting. An important note is that a constant here is moderate consumption, but that should go without saying. So let’s take a closer look at just what’s in beer that makes it healthy.
One might be inclined to lump excessive carbohydrates in with the list of beer’s problems, but this just isn’t the case. Although it does have some carbohydrates, the idea that each brewski is a carb bomb is a myth. Generally, there are 5 to 11 carbohydrate grams in one 12-ounce bottle of beer. Milk has 18 grams. Soft drinks have 36 grams.
Thanks to its malted barley, beer also contains protein, at the rate of 0.7 to 2.1 grams per bottle. While most of the larger proteins are lost during the brewing process, beer still contains all the essential amino acids.
Malted barley also gives beer plenty of vitamins, particularly B vitamins. A bottle of beer can contain 10 to 20 percent of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of niacin, riboflavin, pyridoxine, and folate. But mass-produced beer lovers take note: beer’s riboflavin comes from its barley, as well as its yeast. Beers brewed with barley substitutes such as rice (Budweiser, for example) contain fewer vitamins.
Another benefit of drinking beer is the water, which, among other things, prevents dehydration and helps maintain electrolyte balances. A bottle of beer has between 327 and 337 grams of water, as opposed to 12 ounces of wine, which is 302 to 323 grams water, or soft drinks, which have 315 grams of water.
Because good beer uses good, pure water, you’ll also find a lot of minerals within, although which ones and how much depends entirely on the water’s source. It’s safe to say you’ll usually find a good amount of potassium and magnesium, and plenty of calcium.
Both hops and malt add several phenolic compounds into the mix. Many of these compounds are the same as or similar to the antioxidants found in wine, tea, and several fruits and vegetables, all of which have been known to protect against cardiovascular disease. So it would appear that “The French Paradox” applies to ale drinkers as well.
So get out there and enjoy your Oktoberfest with the knowledge that you could be doing yourself some good. Just don’t overdo it.