Beer may be good for you
Studies suggest key is
moderation, not binge drinking
 
By Ken Wells
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Aug. 13 - Here's a good bar joke: Beer is good for you - even better for you than red wine.
 
HERE'S WHAT'S funnier: It could actually be true .

After more than 20 years of research and scores of studies on the effects of moderate alcohol consumption on health, beer is slowly bubbling to the top as a beverage that not only lifts spirits but delivers protection against major ailments such as heart attacks, stroke, hypertension, diabetes and dementia.

The data seem so compelling that the National Beer Wholesalers Association, an Alexandria, Va., trade group representing the nation's beer distributors, recently put on an oxymoronic sounding "health and beer" seminar and put out a press release that declared: "Eat right, exercise and drink a beer a day may be the way to keep the doctor away." 

Julie Bradford, editor of All About Beer Magazine, says slightly less effervescently: "Well , we're not saying that beer is the new wonder drug or suggesting that people take two beers and call us in the morning." But evidence for beer's healthy side effects - assuming moderate consumption - is strong enough to cause champions of beer like Ms. Bradford to start insisting that the wine folks put a cork in their claims that Beaujolais is superior to Bud.
 
Ms. Bradford's magazine, published in Durham, N.C., and delivered to 25,000 subscribers every other month, is an unabashed beer booster, but she has company in more dispassionate places. Norman D. Kaplan, a professor of internal medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, has studied alcohol's impact on health as part of his 40 years of research into the causes and treatment of hypertension. He concludes that "the benefits of drinking moderate amounts of alcohol is well beyond contention." 

As for beer's specific virtues, Dr. Kaplan cites two recent large-scale studies: in one, a look at 70,000 female nurses showed that those who drank moderate amounts of beer had less hypertension than did nurses who drank either wine or spirits. He also points to a survey of 128,934 adults in the Kaiser Permanente managed-care system. It showed that male beer drinkers among the group were at a statistically significant lower risk of coronary-artery disease than were men who drank red wine, white wine or spirits. 

Dr. Kaplan says new evidence also suggests that beer, because of mechanisms that "are not all clearly understood," may help increase bone density, thus decreasing risk of fractures. And it also could raise by 10% to 20% the so-called "good cholesterol" levels in some people, thereby helping to ward off coronary-heart disease and related afflictions such as dementia. Beer, he adds, is also rich in B-vitamins and folates (a form of water-soluble B-vitamin found in green leafy vegetables), both of which help keep homocysteine blood levels in check. Homocysteine is a chemical that, in elevated amounts, has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease. 

For those reasons, Dr. Kaplan says, "beer drinking has equal or perhaps more benefit" than wine or spirits. As for the wine claims: "The wine people have done a major snow job" in peddling the notion that wine is superior to beer or spirits, he says.
 
Considering that there are an estimated 80 million regular beer drinkers in America, the emergence of beer as a health palliative is a significant public-relations boost for the $55 billion-a-year beer industry. Of course, beer makers are constrained from directly touting any such benefits on labels or in advertising, hence the efforts by trade groups like the NBWA to spread the word. 

But before Joe Six Packs rush out to quaff a few in celebration, there are major caveats. For one, researchers define moderate drinking as one drink a day for women and up to two a day for men (a drink itself being a 12-ounce beer, a five-ounce glass of wine or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits.) 

Conversely, studies show that binge drinking - the consumption of six or more drinks in a day - offers no benefits and puts drinkers at increased risk for obesity and certain types of cancers, liver failure and stroke. 

Moreover, the way beer is often consumed in the U.S. - in heavy-drinking venues like football games or frat parties, for example - may make beer's health claims less useful than they might appear. "The binge factor doesn't help your heart at all" and can even lead to immediate problems, such as heart arrhythmias, says Margo Denke, a medical colleague of Dr. Kaplan's at Texas Southwestern Medical School who has done her own health-and-alcohol studies. 

Nevertheless, when it comes to beer's general health benefits, Dr. Denke says, "the science makes sense; beer is distilled from hops and barley and some of the beneficial nutrients are concentrated and passed along."
 
Eric Rimm, an associate professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard's School of Public Health, believes the benefits of moderate drinking may come from the ethanol component in alcohol. "True, beer has B vitamins, but a single beer provides perhaps 2% to 6% of the recommended daily requirement. To think you can get your RDA of that from beer is probably inappropriate," he says. 

But Dr. Rimm says the prevailing thinking is that ethanol has significant antithrombotic or anticlotting effects similar to aspirin: Health experts, for perhaps a decade, have recommended an aspirin-a-day regimen for people over 50 to help prevent strokes and heart disease. 

More recently, Dutch and Danish researchers looked at beer and wine side by side in studies; in the Dutch sample, in which participating men drank four glasses of either beer, wine or spirits over three months, beer seemed to be better at helping to control homocysteine levels; a similar Danish study found no distinguishable differences. 

The wine folk seem unperturbed by the encroachment of beer into what was once their exclusive PR domain. "We stand by the studies" that link moderate wine consumption and health, says Juanita Duggan, head of the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America, a Washington, D.C., trade group. "And besides, our products will always taste better than theirs."
       
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