Moderate beer drinking could have the same health benefits as wine

We've known for a while now that moderate wine-drinking can confer some health benefits. Now a new study reveals moderate beer consumption can also reduce the risk of heart disease by 31%. So what's behind this unexpected health benefit?

Researchers at Italy's Fondazione di Ricerca e Cura combined several different studies conducted in the last few years that allowed them to explore the possible link between beer drinking and cardiovascular disease, with a data set of over 200,000 people. They found that regular, moderate beer drinking carries almost exactly the same health benefit that has previously been demonstrated for wine consumption, as moderate beer drinkers enjoy a 31% reduced risk of cardiovascular disease compared to non-drinkers. The best combination, they discovered, was drinking slightly more than an English pint's worth of beer containing 5% alcohol each day.

As lead author Simona Costanzo explains, the reduction in cardiovascular risk is nearly identical for beer and wine, despite earlier assumptions that only wine could carry such benefits:

"In our research, we considered wine and beer separately: you first observe a reduction in cardiovascular risk with low to moderate drinking. Then, with an increasing consumption, you can see that the advantage disappears, until the risk gets higher. The interesting part of our research is that, among the studies selected for this meta-analysis, there were 12 in which wine and beer consumption could be compared directly. Using these data we were able to observe that the risk curves for the two beverages are closely overlapping."

These results raise a tricky question - where exactly is this health benefit coming from? Wine and beer have largely different chemical compositions, with the rather obvious exception of alcohol itself. These results might well indicate that alcohol itself actually plays a part in reducing the risk of heart disease. That would be a departure from previous studies, which had assumed the benefits of wine were purely in spite of alcohol, never because of it. This may mean the pros and cons of alcohol and alcoholic beverages are more complicated than previously assumed.

Of course, there is another possibility, namely that the health benefits of wine and beer have little to do with the beverages themselves. Instead, the benefits mostly come from the healthier lifestyles that are associated with regular, moderate drinking, and compare favorably to heavy drinkers and non-drinkers alike. All available evidence does indeed indicate that this lifestyle difference is a huge factor in why wine and now beer provide this health benefit. What's currently unclear is whether the content of the drinks adds to or detracts from the lifestyle component.

Augusto Di Castelnuovo, the head of the Statistic Unit at the Research Laboratories and a pioneer on studies exploring the health benefits of alcohol, emphasizes that this is not about saying alcohol is magically good for you:

"What we are talking about is moderate and regular drinking. I think we will never stress enough this concept. Wine or beer are part of a lifestyle. One glass can pair with healthy foods, eaten at proper time, maybe together with family of friends. There is no place for binge drinking or any other form of heavy consumption. The data reported in our meta-analysis cannot be extrapolated to everybody. In young women still in their fertile age, as an example, alcohol can slightly raise the risk for some kind of cancer. This could counterbalance the positive effect on cardiovascular disease and reduce the overall benefit of alcoholic beverages on health."

For the time being, it remains difficult to place these specific health benefits in the broader context of alcohol's effects on the body. The reduced risk of heart disease does indeed to be a real, tangible benefit of moderate wine or beer consumption, but how much of that is the result of the alcohol itself and how much of it is the result of lifestyle is difficult to determine...though it's likely that the latter explanation is a much bigger part of the puzzle.

Via the European Journal of Epidemiology. Image by Uberphot on Flickr.