You’ve heard about the health benefits of red wine before, but you may be wondering about beer nutrition facts as well. For those of you who think that beer is bad for you, you’ll be surprised to find out that many studies suggest that light-to-moderate consumption of beer can boost your heart health, reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, improve lipid metabolism and reduce oxidative stress.
With the craft beer industry growing in popularity for the last few decades, a number of healthier beers are now available. Ever hear of gluten-free beer? What about unpasteurized or cask conditioned beer? Read more to get a crash course on the healthiest beers out there and where to find them.
Is Beer Bad for You?
The general answer to this question is that drinking too much beer may harm your health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “excessive alcohol use led to approximately 88,000 deaths and 2.5 million years of potential life lost each year in the United States from 2006–2010, shortening the lives of those who died by an average of 30 years.” In working adults aged 20–64 years, excessive drinking was responsible for 1 in 10 deaths. (1) By too much beer, I mean drinking four or more beers in a single session, which is how the CDC defines excessive drinking.
According to research published in the American Journal of Health Behavior, “heavy drinking has been associated with the development of multiple medical, functional and psychiatric problems to which older adults are especially vulnerable.” (2) For people who continue to drink excessively, they have an increased risk of developing some chronic diseases and serious health conditions, including high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, digestive problems and even cancer (including stomach, liver, lung, breast and esophagus cancers). (3)
Research suggests that drinking too much beer, or any type of alcohol, is also associated with poorer dietary habits. For instance, people who drink excessively are less likely to focus on eating healthy, well-balanced meals throughout the day and they are more likely to smoke cigarettes. Drinking too much is also associated with a greater likelihood of living a sedentary lifestyle, which takes a major toll on your health. (4)
Excess alcohol consumption is also responsible for unintentional and intentional injury, and it can cause social harm to both the drinker and those around him. In fact, alcohol consumption has been associated with many mental disorders, especially for people who have developed an alcohol use disorder. According to research published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, people with an alcohol use disorder are 10 times more likely to have a drug use disorder, four times more likely to have a mood disorder (like depression and seasonal affective disorder) and three times more likely to have an anxiety disorder. (5)
Here’s the bottomline for those of you who are wondering if beer is bad for you: I do my best to live a healthy lifestyle that includes daily physical activity, mindfulness and consuming foods and beverages that will enhance my overall wellness, not negate all of the work I’ve done to better my body and mind. When I do drink, I never go beyond 1–2 beers (and honestly, prefer red wine). In contrast to the health risks of heavy drinking, light or moderate alcohol consumption has been associated with lower mortality than both drinking in excess and not drinking at all. (6)
But What About Gluten-Free Beer? Unfiltered Beer? Unpasteurized Beer?
Now we’re talking! When I do indulge in a beer, I like to choose the tastiest options that still coincide with my diet, so let’s discuss the different types of beers that may even be considered healthy. Craft beer continues to be overwhelmingly popular, with local breweries throughout the country that offer an array of styles, from gluten-free beer to vegan beer. To have you navigate the many options on the market, here’s an explanation of the healthiest beers out there:
Brewers have begun using gluten-free bases in their beer, such as rice, millet, buckwheat and sorghum, instead of the commonly used ingredients barley and wheat. Technically, if a brewer uses ingredients containing gluten in his batches, like barley and rye, he can reduce the level of gluten to below 20 parts per million and still label it as a gluten-free beer.
The standards vary from country to country, with some beers containing very low levels of gluten that they are perceived to be safe for people with gluten allergies and intolerances. Brewers who produce low gluten beers are required to test every batch of beer for gluten to make sure they are within the regulations. (7)
Hard ciders are also almost always gluten-free, as they are made with a variety of apples, pears and other fruits, instead of ingredients that contain gluten. Check the labels on ciders because some brewers add barley for enzymes and flavor.
During the brewing process, batches of beer typically undergo pasteurization to ensure a longer shelf life and uniformity. In the pasteurization process, the brewer is able to kill traces of live yeast or other organisms, which preserves the beer so that it can be stored for long periods of time.
But when you pasteurize beer, you destroy the natural yeast and enzymes that are present, thereby reducing the natural probiotics benefits in beer. You also lose most of the B vitamins from the yeast. Unpasteurized beer is “live” beer that contains living microorganisms. Just like fermented vegetables and probiotic yogurt or kefir, unpasteurized beer contains lactobacillus, a type of beneficial bacteria. When you see the term “bottle conditioned” on the label, that means that the beer isn’t pasteurized. (8)
Just like the USDA standards for all organic foods, ingredients made to make organic beer must be grown without toxic pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, using chemical-free soil and no genetically modified ingredients. When you choose organic beers, you know that you’re not consuming any unknown chemicals and you are helping to sustain agriculture and the environment. You are supporting the organic farming industry, ensuring that these farmlands remain chemical-free.
When a beer is unfiltered, that means it’s intentionally served with yeast remaining in the cask, keg or bottle. The reason why most brewers filter their beer is because it gives the brew a brighter and clearer appearance, and it reduces the amount of sediment remaining in the beer. As craft brewing has expanded over the last few decades, brewers have begun to realize that filtering beers takes out the color and even the taste, reducing the bitterness of hops, for instance. And unfiltered beer doesn’t alter the vitamin B levels, like filtering a beer would, which is why drinking unfiltered beer may help you to combat the effects of alcohol, such as feeling hungover.
Cask Conditioned Beer
Cask conditioned beer is unfiltered, transferred into casks, carbonated, sealed and fermented while in the cask. As a result of this brewing process, cask conditioned beer is less carbonated than your traditional draught beers and because it’s unfiltered, it has a fuller, more complex flavor. It also has live yeast in the cask, which provides the final fermentation.
Aside from the fact that cask conditioned beer can be viewed as a healthier beer option, because it’s unfiltered, it’s also served at 55 degrees Fahrenheit (warmer than most keg beers that are served around 45–50 degrees), adding to its flavor and unfiltered texture. (9)
To make sour beer, brewers typically use a combination of microbes or acid-producing bacteria. Brettanomyces is the most common microbe used to make sour beer; Lactobacillus and Pediococcus are bacteria that are used to ferment sugars into alcohol. Lactobacillus is a lactic acid-producing bacteria, which gives beer a sharp, sour and acidic flavor.
6 Potential Benefits of Beer (When Consumed in Moderation)
1. Rich in Antioxidants
The natural antioxidants found in beer, especially polyphenols, are responsible for beer’s cardiovascular benefits. Plus, beer contains beneficial bioflavonoids, which are powerful phytochemicals that have anti-inflammatory, antidiabetic and even anticancer activities. Research published in the American Journal of Medical Science suggests that the antioxidant content of beer is equivalent to that of wine, as the barley and hops used in brewing beer contains flavonoids. (10)
2. Contains a Handful of Vitamins and Minerals
Did you know that beer contains significant amounts of vitamins and minerals such as magnesium, selenium, potassium, phosphorus, biotin and B vitamins? You may be surprised by these beer nutrition facts, but it’s true, especially when you are drinking unfiltered beer. In fact, beer contains more protein and B vitamins than wine. (11)
These nutrients are present in beer because of its basic ingredients, including barley, hops and yeast, but some of these vitamins and minerals are destroyed by the alcohol, so thinking of beer as a nutritional beverage may be a stretch.
3. Boosts Heart Health
According to research published by Harvard School of Public Health, more than 100 prospective studies show an inverse relationship between moderate drinking and heart conditions, including heart attack, ischemic stroke (caused by blood clots), peripheral vascular disease and sudden cardiac death. The research shows that there’s a 25 to 45 percent reduction in risk of developing these heart conditions, compared to non-drinkers. This, of course, only applies to people who drink modestly, which means about 1 drink per day for women and 1–2 drinks for men. (12)
4. Improves Immunity
Moderate beer consumption has shown to improve immunity in both men and women. This is due to the polyphenols present in beer and other alcoholic beverages. Drinking unfiltered, unpasteurized or sour beers may be the healthiest immune-boosting beers because of the live bacteria that’s left in the beers during the brewing process. On the other hand, consuming high doses of alcohol can directly suppress a wide range of immune responses. (13, 14)
5. Aids Digestion
The hops in beer may work to aid digestion by easing the process. Beer possesses a number of digestive properties, like gastric acid, pancreatic enzymes and cholecystokinin, a gut hormone that is released after a meal by neurons in your brain. Research published in The American Journal of Gastroenterology suggests that low alcohol doses help to accelerate gastric emptying, but high doses delay emptying and result in slow bowel movement. (15)
6. Reduces Risk of Diabetes
According to research published by the American Diabetes Association, moderate drinkers are reducing their risk of developing type 2 diabetes symptoms by about 30 percent. Researchers analyzed 28 publications on the relationship between alcohol consumption and the incidence of type 2 diabetes. When considering the data that met their study criteria, the researchers found that there’s a U-shaped relationship between alcohol consumption and the risk of type 2 diabetes, with the lowest risk being observed in moderate drinkers, and no difference among heavier drinkers and non-drinkers. (16)
An animal study published in Clinical Nutrition backs up this research on beer and diabetes. Researchers found that isohumulones, the bitter component of beer, decrease plasma glucose and lipid levels in diabetic mice. Isohumulones are compounds that are found in hops, which is a common ingredient in beer, including gluten-free beers and organic beers. (17)
How to Choose & Find the Healthiest Beer
You can find an array of craft beers in your local grocery store or craft beer store. As craft beer becomes more popular around the country, your options expand. To find the healthiest local beers, research the nearest brewery and pay a visit; ask the brewer about unfiltered, unpasteurized or cask conditioned options. You can also take a tour and learn all about the brewing and fermentation process.
To get you started, try some of these healthier beers. You should be able to find these beers locally, especially in stores like Whole Foods, which sells a variety of gluten-free and organic beers.
- Dogfish Head’s Tweason’ale: This gluten-free beer is made with sorghum syrup as the base and healthy ingredients like strawberries, molasses and buckwheat honey. According to the brewers at Dogfish Head, “health-conscious beer drinkers and the millions of Americans who suffer from Celiac disease can cut back on gluten while relishing the distinction and drinkability of this very special brew.”
- Samuel Smith’s Pure Brewed Organic Lager: This healthier beer brewed by Samuel Smith is made with organic malted barley, organic hops and bottom-fermenting yeast. The fermentation process improves the beers flavor and purity; plus, this beer is registered with the Vegan Society, making it suitable for vegans and vegetarians.
- Evil Twin’s Sour Bikini: This sour beer by Evil Twin Brewing in Brooklyn, New York, has a tart flavor with hints of lemon, orange, grapefruit, peach and nectarine. It’s also low in alcohol, at just 3 percent ABV (alcohol by volume). This is considered a mild sour beer, so it’s a great choice if you haven’t experienced sours before.
- Guinness Draught: Guinness is an iconic beer that is low in ABV and calories, plus it contains powerful antioxidants. Experts at the University of Wisconsin found that Guinness has health-promoting properties. At a meeting of the American Heart Association, researchers explained that about a pint of Guinness at mealtimes helps to slow down the deposit of harmful cholesterol on the artery walls, thereby reducing the threat of blood clots. (18)
- Epic Brewing Company’s Glutenator: Epic Brewing Company uses a combination of brown rice, sweet potatoes, molasses, millet and American hops to make this gluten-free beer. These ingredients give it a sweet grain flavor and a clean finish.
- Stone’s Delicious IPA: Stone’s Delicious IPA is gluten-reduced beer with a lemon and spice flavor. According to the brewers at Stone, this IPA is fermented in a manner that breaks down and removes gluten, rendering gluten levels so much that the beer qualifies as “gluten-reduced,” which is said to be safe for people with gluten intolerances or allergies. It’s a citrusy India pale ale that’s made with lemondrop and El Dorado hops.
- Peak Organic’s Evergreen IPA: This is Peak’s flagship IPA, made with organic juniper berries and organic spruce. Brewer Jon Cadoux is passionate about sustainability and using ingredients from local organic farmers and artisan businesses for his brews. All beers made by Peak Organic are, in fact, organic, including their pale ale, The Juice, which is made with tangerine and berry notes.
- Elysian Brewing Company’s Space Dust IPA: Brewers at Elysian Brewing Company, located in Seattle, do not filter their beers. After the fermented beer is transferred to a cold-conditioning tank for aging and clarification, a centrifuge spins the beer at thousands of revolutions per minute to settle the yeast solids and unwanted protein complexes. By leaving their beers unfiltered, brewers are keeping as much flavor as possible.
- Cascade Brewing’s Sang Royal: Cascade Brewing, located in Portland, Oregon, is known for its sour beers. Their souring process relies on fermentation by acid-producing bacteria such as lactobacillus, which feeds on the sugar in beer and excretes organic acids, giving beer its sour taste. Cascade brewers label their beer as “northwest sour ales” because they are made with fresh ingredients made exclusively in the Pacific Northwest, including cherries, apricots, berries and grapes.
- Angry Orchard’s Crisp Apple: This hard cider made by Angry Orchard is gluten-free, made with braeburn, fuji, granny smith and gala apples. It’s pretty low in alcohol, at 5 percent ABV, and you’ll feel like you’re biting into a fresh apple, as it’s a great balance of sweetness and acidity.
Cask conditioned beers are always unfiltered, unpasteurized and served fresh, as they will go flat after about 48 hours. Many bars and breweries around the U.S. are now serving cask conditioned beer, with a variety of choices out there. Check out your local craft beer bar or brewery to partake in the cask conditioned experience.
There are some people who should not consume any alcohol, including women who are pregnant, people who are taking certain prescriptions or over-the-counter medications that can interact with alcohol, people who are suffering from certain medical conditions, and anyone who is planning to drive or participating in any activities that require alertness. (19)
- If you’re wondering if beer is bad for you, you may be surprised that light or moderate consumption of beer has many potential health benefits, including reducing your risk of heart disease and diabetes.
- When I do drink, I stick to 1–2 beers in a day, and I like to choose the healthiest beers out there, like gluten-free beers, unfiltered beers and organic beers.
- You can find these healthy beer options in your local grocery store, brewery or craft beer store.
Blog by Dr. Josh Axe