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Beer – an Approved Dietary Supplement?

Published May 18th, 2011 in Eat for Health

by Tammera J. Karr, PhD, BCIH, CNC

Over the years I have wondered at the appeal of Beer, weekends brought Olympia into the house, but it’s pale bitterness held no appeal for me. Then as an adult and the advent of microbrews and imported beers, I found some that added to the taste of the meal like Guinness, Rogue Bastard, Spatan and now Gluten Free Redbridge and Bard’s.

Some will argue that beer is a dietary supplement, so I decided to look into the history of spirits; after all it is always around for any season. Late Stone Age beer jugs, established purposely fermented beverages existed at least as early as c. 10,000 BC. It has been suggested that beer may have preceded bread as a dietary staple. The invention of bread and beer has been argued to be responsible for humanity’s ability to develop technology and build civilization.

The production and consumption of alcohol occurs in most cultures of the world, from hunter-gatherer peoples to nation-states. Alcoholic beverages are often an important part of social events. In many cultures, drinking plays a significant role in social interaction — some believe mainly because of alcohol’s neurological effects.

Fermentation usually implies that the action of microorganisms is desirable, and the process is used to produce alcoholic beverages such as wine, beer, and cider. Fermentation is also employed in the leavening of bread, and for preservation techniques to create lactic acid in sour foods such as sauerkraut, dry sausages, kimchi and yogurt, or vinegar for use in pickling foods. Fermented foods have been used as dietary food staples as a means of protecting and maintaining healthy bacteria in the digestive tract. The utilization of fermentation was also a key preservation tool prior to refrigeration, canning and freezing in areas where Ice was not available.

Beer is one of the world’s oldest prepared beverages, possibly dating back to the early Neolithic or 9500 BC, when cereal was first farmed, and is recorded in the written history of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Archaeologists speculate that beer was instrumental in the formation of civilizations.

The earliest known chemical evidence of beer dates to circa 3500–3100 BC from the site of Godin Tepe in the Zagros Mountains of western Iran. A prayer to the goddess Ninkasi, known as “The Hymn to Ninkasi”, served as both a prayer and a method of remembering the recipe for beer in a culture with few literate people. The Ebla tablets, discovered in 1974 in Syria date back to 2,500 BC, reveal the city produced a range of beers, including one named “Ebla” after the city. A beer made from rice, which, unlike sake, was prepared for fermentation by malting, was made in China around 7,000 BC.

Beer was spread through Europe by Germanic and Celtic tribes as far back as 3000 BC, and it was mainly brewed on a domestic scale, the product that the early Europeans drank might not be recognized as beer by most people today. Alongside the basic starch source, the early European beers might contain fruits, honey, numerous types of plants, spices and other substances such as narcotic herbs. What they did not contain was hops, as that was a later addition first mentioned in Europe around 822 by a Carolingian Abbot and again in 1067 by Abbess Hildegard of Bingen.

In 1516, William IV, Duke of Bavaria, adopted the Reinheitsgebot (purity law), perhaps the oldest food-quality regulation still in use, according to which the only allowed ingredients of beer are water, hops and barley-malt. Beer produced before the Industrial Revolution continued to be made and sold on a domestic scale, although by the 7th century AD, beer was also being produced and sold by European monasteries. During the Industrial Revolution, the production of beer moved from artisanal manufacture to industrial manufacture, and domestic manufacture ceased by the end of the 19th century.

Today, the brewing industry is a global business, consisting of several dominant multinational companies and many thousands of smaller producers ranging from brewpubs to regional breweries. The Pacific Northwest has the corner on the market for microbrews and has received national and international recognition for the specialty beers being produced. As of 2006, more than 133 billion liters (35 billion gallons), of beer were sold, producing total global revenues of $294.5 billion. That’s a lot of belching…

Health effects

The active ingredient of beer is alcohol, the health effects of alcohol apply to beer, wine and spirits. The moderate consumption of alcohol (4oz spirits, 6-8 oz beer and wine), including beer, is associated with a decreased risk of cardiac disease, stroke and cognitive decline. The long-term effects of alcohol abuse, however, include the risk of developing alcoholism and alcoholic liver disease. Anyone with elevated liver enzymes or Hepatic C should avoid all alcohol.  Brewer’s yeast is a rich source of nutrients used in fermentation of beer; as expected, beer can contain significant amounts of nutrients, including magnesium, selenium, potassium, phosphorus, biotin, and B vitamins. Beer is sometimes referred to as “liquid bread”. Some sources maintain that filtered beer loses much of its nutrition.

A 2005 Japanese study found that low alcohol beer may possess strong anti-cancer properties. Another study found nonalcoholic beer to mirror the cardiovascular benefits associated with moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages. However, much research suggests that the primary health benefit from alcoholic beverages comes from the alcohol they contain.

The rule is moderation, especially in calorie dense beers. Beer can be highly estrogenic, so watch out for manboobs and budabellies one and all.

Interested in learning more? Check out my book, “Our Journey With Food”.

Category: Eat for Health