Belly Full of Benefits

Commentary by Pete du Pont

"In heaven there is no beer, that's why we drink it here," the song goes. And now we know why. Beer is good for us. Just ask the researchers.

While the health benefits of red wine have been trumpeted for years, beer, it's proletarian cousin, has more often been associated with a large gut. But a recent article in the literary review of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School by Dr. Margo Denke, "Nutritional and Health Benefits of Beer," makes the case for downing a couple of cold ones. The operative word there is "couple." Like the good qualities that are accorded to red wine, beer's beneficial properties are linked to moderate consumption -- say, a beer or two a day.

Dr. Denke's article is part scientific reportage and part history lesson. Beer's history is illustrious. It's the oldest alcoholic beverage. Barley, it's basic ingredient, could grow anywhere, unlike grapes for winemaking, which only grew in a narrow latitude range. Barley began to be cultivated in Egypt 8,000 years ago and in northwestern Europe 5,000 years ago.

The discovery of beer was probably a happy accident, when barley and malt fermented, and someone tasted the resulting brew. The ancient Mesopotamians were the first to go into full scale beer production, even though fermentation wasn't really understood until Louis Pasteur did a study of beer and found that exposure to air -- the source of yeast cells called Saccharomyces -- was necessary for the process.

The ancient Egyptians, of course, didn't have Pasteur's insight, but many beer devotees might think their explanation was as good as the French scientists. They believed beer was a gift from the gods, in their particular case one bestowed on mankind by Ibis, the deity of nature. The Roman historians Pliny and Tacitus reported beer production and consumption by the Saxons, Celts, Nordic and Germanic tribes. As early as the first century, Germans introduced hops into brewing, although they weren't widely used until the 16th century.

Beer was popular, and even portable. Malt cakes could be carried long distances and reconstituted to make beer. It was even better than water in some places. Where water sources were essentially toxic little bacteria factories, beer was always safe to drink because its natural acidity reduced bacteria growth in the water that was used in brewing. Beer was even prescribed by doctors for various maladies.

But in the last decade or so, more than 100 studies have shown us that beer is, shall we say, heartening. That is, good for the heart.

"The majority of more recent, large, population based studies," she writes, "have observed that moderate drinking in the range of 1-3 drinks daily is associated with a 30-40% lower rate of coronary disease compared to non-drinking."

Different studies offer a variety of explanations why this could be true. Moderate alcohol intake raises the level of HDL cholesterol ("good" cholesterol). It increases bleeding time, acting as a natural blood thinner that decreases the chance of coronary thrombosis. Other researchers speculate that alcohol lowers insulin levels, which in non-diabetics could mean a reduced chance of atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries.

Beer has other surprises, too. It's rich in protein, B vitamins and certain minerals like magnesium, cadmium and iron. Studies found that for subjects consuming one to two beers a day, beer provided 14 percent of calories, 11 percent of dietary protein, 12 percent of dietary carbohydrates, nine percent of dietary phosphorus, seven percent of dietary riboflavin and five percent of dietary niacin. Some of its non-alcohol components, called phenols, appear to have anti-oxidant properties that reduce LDL cholesterol ("bad" cholesterol) oxidation.

In addition to pulling together studies that have been going on for the past decade, Dr. Denke also reprints an older argument for beer, "A Moral and Physical Thermometer," from Benjamin Rush's An Inquiry Into the Effects of Ardent Spirits Upon the Human Body and Mind. Rush was an 18th-century physician and friend of Benjamin Franklin. He ranked beverages from those with the worst effects to the most felicitous. At the bottom was heavy consumption of gin, brandy and rum, with their attendant vices ("swindling, perjury, burglary, murder"), diseases ("melancholy, palsy, apoplexy, madness, despair") and punishments ("gallows"). Strong beer was at the top of thermometer: "cheerfulness, strength, and nourishment, when taken only in small quantities and at meals."

And if you get a little too cheerful for too long and forgo the exercise to work off the beer gut? Another tidbit from the article: doctors refer to it as an "increased waist-to-hip ratio." Much more elegant. Cheers.



The National Center for Policy Analysis is a public policy research institute founded in 1983 and internationally known for its studies on public policy issues. The NCPA is headquartered in Dallas, Texas, with an office in Washington, D.C.