I can see the slogan now: “A beer a day keeps the doctor away.”
Yes, beer — long derided for packing on the pounds by providing empty calories and little else — has some positive health effects, according to recent research.
A Dutch study, conducted by TNO Nutrition and Food Research in Zeist, the Netherlands, found that a known reference for predicting future cardiovascular disease, blood C- reactive protein (CRP), declined by 35 percent after three weeks of regular beer consumption, compared with levels after three weeks of drinking non-alcoholic beer. The same study found that levels of HDL ("good") cholesterol rose by 11 percent during the same period.
Thinking of beer as having nutritional benefits may sound a bit odd at first. We all have the image that too much beer drinking can make a hefty addition to our waistline — the dreaded “beer belly” — and too much fat around our middle is not good for us.
But it also seemed odd 13 years ago when “60 Minutes” brought to Americans’ attention the "French Paradox" — the fact that the French have a 42 percent lower incidence of heart disease than Americans, and somehow manage to accomplish this with one of the highest-fat diets in the world.
One of the key reasons identified for this difference was France’s high consumption of red wine. Red wine is loaded with polyphenols, the compound derived from grape tannins, and anthocyanins pigments, which are among the most powerful of the antioxidants and are widely believed to lower risk for heart disease.
The claims were somewhat dimmed when further research showed that the comparatively good heart health of the French may also come from the fact that their portion sizes tend to be smaller. However, other studies have continued to highlight the positive health effects of moderate alcohol consumption.
What also appears to remain constant is the benefits of the anti-oxidant polyphenols. The key here is the darkness of the brew, whether it be wine or beer. (Or, for that matter, tea — in the eyes of science, the polyphenols in tea, wine and beer are more or less the same.)
That’s why red wine, as opposed to white, has received all the attention. And when it comes to beer, it appears that the dark varieties are the most heart-healthy. For instance, a dark beer vs. light beer study, presented at the 2003 American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions, reported that because of the higher content of flavonoids, dark beer was more effective in fighting blood clots than was its light-colored cousin.
Beer also seems to have a benefit beyond those in tea or red wine: it contains silicon, a trace element that is found in the hops that are used to add flavor. A study conducted at University of London and Cambridge and published in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research claims to have found a relationship between the intake of dietary silicon and decreased bone loss in men and pre-menopausal women.
That’s the good news. The bad remains the same — more than moderate consumption of alcohol is dangerous in many ways. Most important, of course, is that it impairs your judgment, particularly when driving and operating other machinery. It is also a proven danger to the fetuses of pregnant women.
Beyond that, it still provides few other nutritional benefits and huge amounts of calories, and unless those calories are burned, they will work their way to your middle! (You can, however, mitigate these effects by reading those labels carefully — the calorie content in beers varies greatly from brand to brand and variety to variety.)
Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent