- Beer contains a nutrient that can strengthen bone.
- In moderation, beer can contribute to a healthy diet.
- Wine isn't the only alcoholic beverage that does our bodies some good.
As wine gets showered with publicity for its heart-fortifying, health-boosting effects, beer has maintained a reputation as a dietary wasteland, full of empty calories. But beer, according to growing research, has some powerful nutritional properties, too.
In one of the latest studies, scientists found that some varieties of beer contain large amounts of silicon, a nutrient that helps strengthen bones. Although the study didn't specifically test the health effects of a cold frothy pint, the findings suggest that moderate beer drinking might help reduce the risk of osteoporosis and other diseases.
"The wine guys have stolen the moral high ground," said Charles Bamforth, a biochemist and professor of food science at the University of California, Davis. "The reality is there's now growing consensus around the world that the active ingredient in alcoholic beverages that counters atherosclerosis is alcohol. It doesn't matter if it's wine or beer."
"I resent the stance that people take that wine is better," he added. "It's not."
Over the years, scientists have uncovered a number of health benefits in beer. The beverage contains folate, for example, which helps prevent cancer and reduces the risk of birth defects. Beer can also limit kidney stones and gallstones. And it can lower the risk of late-onset diabetes.
"The list," Bamforth said, "goes on and on."
Scientists have long known that beer also contains silicon, which strengthens bones in animal studies and has been linked with higher bone-mineral density in people. Bamforth and graduate student Troy Casey wanted to know what determines how much silicon a given type of beer ends up with.
After dissecting the ingredients in beer and analyzing 100 types of commercial brew, the researchers found a range of silicon levels -- from about 6 milligrams of silicon per liter of beer to more than 56 mg/L. One liter is equivalent to about two bar-standard pint glasses.
Nutritionists don't yet know how much silicon is ideal, but people tend to consume an average of between 20 and 50 mg of silicon a day, and studies suggest that people should get at least 46 mg daily, said Katherine Tucker, a nutritional epidemiologist at Northeastern University in Boston. Besides beer, sources include fruit, vegetables, and whole grains.
When it came to styles of beer, a few patterns emerged, the researchers report today in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture. Ales tended to contain more silicon than lagers did -- with an average of 33 mg/L compared to 24 mg/L. India Pale Ales, or IPAs, had the highest levels -- an average of 41 mg/L.
The trends suggest that raw ingredients and brewing techniques determine how much silicon ends up in the final product. The greatest source of silicon, Bamforth said, is malt -- the sprouted cereal grain that forms the soul of a beer. Starches in sprouted barley or wheat break down into sugars that yeast converts into alcohol.
Beers with lots of malt had the most silicon, with barley containing more of it than wheat did. The scientists found lesser amounts of silicon in hops, which add spiciness and flavor to beer.
As for brewing styles, vigorous processing released higher levels of silicon into the beverage. Drying of the malted grains made a difference, too. Drying develops color and flavor but reduces silicon. So, strong, dark beers had relatively low levels of silicon because they experienced excessive drying.
Together, the results suggest that people who want to get the most silicon for their beer-drinking buck should go for malty, hoppy barley-based brews that aren't too dark.
As with most nutrients -- and most happy hour drinks -- though, you can get too much of a good thing. Men should stop at two drinks a day, Tucker said. Women should stop at one.
"It is important to stress that moderate alcohol intake appears to be protective of bone," Tucker said, "but too much is bad for health andhellip;is associated with bone loss."
At the end of a long, hard day, it's probably not necessary to consider silicon in your beer selection, Bamforth said. After all, his study found a wide range of silicon levels within each category. All beers, he added, contain at least some of the nutrient.
"I would first consider flavor and whether you like it or not," Bamforth said. "Choose the beer you enjoy, for goodness sake."