Sorry, Folks, Beer Isn’t a Health Food
It seems like once a week there's a new study pointing to the potential health properties of beer. We decided to investigate.
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Every six months or so, headlines boasting beer as the new superfood make the rounds. Most recently, it was news that beer could lower cholesterol. A few months before that, media outlets reported that beer could lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. And in the past few years, we’ve been promised that beer can help with cognitive function, reduce our risk of kidney stones, and maybe even improve our bone density.
Right now, you’re probably thinking, To my health! as you crack a cold one.
Not so fast. Last year, the UK’s chief medical officers published guidelines declaring that no level of alcohol can be considered safe. The warning is mainly due to research showing even small amounts of alcohol consumption can up a person’s risk for certain cancers, like oral, esophageal, colorectal, and breast cancer. And while the most recent U.S. Dietary Guidelines allow for up to one drink a day for women and two for men, the guidelines are also careful to add that if you don’t drink, there’s absolutely no reason to start.
So, why do we keep reading about beer’s healthful qualities?
The simple answer is that headlines like “8 Ways Beer Is Good for You” are irresistibly clickable. And health journalists (myself included) are prone to reading only the bottom few lines of a study’s abstract—the parts where the researchers summarize their findings. It’s a terrible way to report on science, since science happens in the details, not in big, tied-with-a-bow summaries. In fact, in 2015, a science journalist designed a bogus study about how chocolate aids in weight loss just to trick journalists into reporting on it. The plan worked. The study made major headlines—until the researcher came forward and admitted it was fake. The result was a good reminder to all of us that the fine print matters and that a skeptical eye can be a journalist’s best asset.
There’s also the sticky problem of who, exactly, is funding these papers. “I often wonder if these studies are being financed by beer makers,” says Dana Hunnes, senior dietician at the UCLA Medical Center. Industry funding is not a rarity in nutrition research. A study published in PLOS Medicine in 2007 reviewed 206 studies about soft drinks, juice, and milk and found that 54 percent of the papers took money from some sort of for-profit industry partner. When the results of these studies were analyzed, researchers found that studies with industry funding were more likely to have a favorable outcome about the food tested. The authors of the paper are quick to point out that correlation isn’t causation, and the money can’t be directly tied to changes in outcome. Still, it’s important to know that funding biases could influence research results.
Finally, sometimes research—especially on nutrition—is overly reductionist. Food writer Michael Pollan opines about the dangers of studying single nutrients in his 2007 book, In Defense of Food, saying, “A nutrient bias is built into the way science is done: scientists need individual variables they can isolate. Yet even the simplest food is a hopelessly complex thing to study, a virtual wilderness of chemical compounds, many of which exist in complex and dynamic relation to one another, and all of which together are in the process of changing from one state to another.” As you’ll see, some of these beer studies look at only a single compound within the beer and extrapolate results from there, when really, there is likely more going on.
Do any of the claims regarding beer’s magical properties stack up? We asked Hunnes to help us decipher some of the boldest claims that beer researchers have made. Here’s how they break down.
Beer May Help Your Blood Lipid Profiles
The Idea: For more than a decade, we’ve known that xanthohumol, a compound found in hops, may have beneficial health properties. One area where it seems to be especially promising is in altering blood lipid profiles and possibly even reducing weight gain and obesity. Several studies in the past year have focused on this, with promising results. In one, published in the journal Atherosclerosis, xanthohumol reduced cholesterol levels in hamsters. Another, published in Archive of Biochemistry and Biophysics, found that obese mice given xanthohumol had reductions in many symptoms of metabolic syndrome, including lowered fasting plasma glucose, triglycerides, and total cholesterol.
The Problem: So far, this research has been done mostly on animals, not humans. Also, these studies involved large doses of xanthohumol—upwards of 60 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. “That’s more than you could safely get from beer,” says Hunnes. According to a paper published in 2012 from researchers at Oregon State University, most large-scale lagers have just .034 milligrams of xanthohumol per liter. Northwest IPAs do better, with .24 milligrams per liter. Still, drinking enough beer to get 60 milligrams would send you straight to the ER.
Beer Can Lower Your Risk of Cardiovascular Disease
The Idea: Lots of studies examine the link between red wine and lowered rates of cardiovascular disease. Sometimes called the French paradox, there’s evidence that the polyphenols in wine could lower your risk for heart attacks. But recently, researchers have found other alcohols may also have protective benefits. A 2003 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that, at least for men, drinking a moderate amount of any type of alcohol three to four times a week reduced the risk of a heart incident. A 2013 study in Alcohol and Alcoholism found a similar result, with both wine and beer showing a protective effect.
The Problem: Of all the research, this is probably the soundest, since many of these studies use large, longitudinal population data. Still, the data shows only correlation between moderate drinking and lower risks of cardiovascular disease and not necessarily causation. Plus, there obviously are risks to drinking, says Hunnes. It’s poison, and you’re doing yourself much more harm than good if you consume a six-pack every night. Finally, there are other good ways to reduce your risk for cardiovascular disease, like engaging in regular exercise and eating a plant-based diet.
Beer Is Good for Your Brain
The Idea: Obviously, chugging a lot of beer turns your brain to putty, but is it possible that a little bit of alcohol could make you more creative? Hemingway and many, many other writers have tested this in N=1 experiments, but now researchers are examining this claim in slightly more controlled settings. In a study published in 2012 in Consciousness and Cognition, researchers noted that subjects with a blood alcohol content of .075 performed better than their teetotaling peers on word games that required creative thinking. A follow-up study, published in 2013 in Consciousness and Cognition, found that after consuming alcohol, study participants were more likely to notice small changes that had been made between two mostly identical photos. While these two studies look at alcohol’s effect on the brain, other researchers have begun examining xanthohumol’s effects on our gray matter. In 2014, a paper published in Behavioral Brain Research found that young mice given xanthohumol supplements had better “cognitive flexibility,” or the ability to think on a high level.
The Problem: If alcohol makes you more creative, it is most likely at the expense of other brain functions. Both of the studies in Consciousness and Cognition point out that any sort of memory-based task or tasks requiring extreme focus suffer with the introduction of alcohol. “It’s kind of like, well, duh, of course it affects your mind in negative ways,” says Hunnes. The xanthohumol research has problems, too. Researchers on that study pointed out that the dose given to the mice equaled the xanthohumol you’d get from approximately 2,000 liters of beer—a lethal dose, says Hunnes. Also, xanthohumol seemed to help only the young mice; older mice saw no benefit.
Beer Can Reduce Your Risk of Kidney Stones
The Idea: Drink more fluids has been the advice doctors have given kidney stone sufferers for years. But a 2013 study published in the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology showed that the types of fluids you drink might affect your risk for a stone. Researchers analyzed dietary data for 194,095 subjects over the span of almost a decade. Those who drank sugar-sweetened colas saw their risk spike. But those who regularly drank wine and beer saw their risk decline. While wine was good, decreasing a person’s risk by up to 33 percent, beer reduced a person’s risk by 41 percent.
The Problem: This is a case where beer may actually help a bit. However, do a scan of the National Institute of Health’s website on how to prevent kidney stones, and you’ll notice that drinking more beer isn’t listed among the tips. Why? Because there are a ton of other ways to reduce your chances of getting all clogged up that don’t have other health risks. “Just drinking lots of fluids will help. Or you can try the low-oxalate diet,” says Hunnes. This is a diet that removes foods high in oxalic acid (like spinach and rhubarb), a common culprit in causing kidney stones. Dropping weight if you’re overweight or reducing the amount of animal protein you consume are also well-documented strategies for mitigating kidney stone risk.
Beer Helps Build Bone Density
The Idea: A 2016 review of studies published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research found that moderate alcohol consumption seemed to result in higher bone-mineral density and lowered rates of age-related bone loss. This study built on a 2009 study in Nutrition that found women who drank beer regularly tended to have better bone density.
The Problem: It’s hard to separate drinking from other lifestyle variables, so it’s possible that those who drink moderately are also likely to engage in other healthful practices, while those who drink heavy amounts (shown to correlate with lowered bone density) may be more prone to smoking, poor diets, or other unhealthy habits. Plus, consuming alcohol increases your risk for accidents, with your bones often paying a steep price. Hunnes’ recommendation is to build your bones through weight-bearing exercise, like running or lifting weights. “And make sure you’re getting plenty of calcium,” she says, adding, “There are lots of ways to get calcium without eating dairy.” Both of these suggestions are evidence-based methods for building strong bones that don’t come with the health risks (and emergency room risks) of pounding a few nightly pints.
Beer isn’t the new kale. When you see a study claiming it as a health food, a modicum of skepticism is warranted. But beer is delicious, and we don’t need a study to prove that.
Furthermore, in moderation, beer’s pretty okay. “There’s a way for people to enjoy beer as a part of a healthy lifestyle,” says Benjamin DuBois, a San Diego–based physician. Of course, he’s perhaps a little biased, since he runs the Bay City Brewing Company in his spare time. His advice? Watch your caloric intake and your total alcohol consumption. A beer or two a day may have the ability to keep the doctor away. But 16 beers a day? In a rare moment of unanimity between researchers and medical professionals, all agree that bingeing on alcohol is not doing anyone any good.