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How to choose beer

How to choose beer

It's a favourite summer drop: we guide you through the 'healthier' beers on the shelf.

Beer is the most widely consumed alcoholic drink in the world and its history dates back to around 4000BC. This original beer, however, was rather flat and would have tasted quite different; hops weren't used in beer making until the 8th century. In New Zealand, beer has been part of our history since the arrival of Captain Cook, who is credited with brewing beer here in the 1770s.

Many people will attest to the almost 'medicinal' qualities of a cold beer at the end of a day's work and in fact, many studies have shown that moderate drinking is good for us. Specific studies on moderate beer drinkers show they have a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease compared to non-drinkers or heavy drinkers. Alcohol of any kind increases our HDL (good) cholesterol and reduces blood clotting. Some studies have also found moderate alcohol consumption to be associated with a reduced risk of both type 2 diabetes and dementia; and there are animal studies suggesting that beer consumption (thanks to compounds in the hops) may help slow postmenopausal bone loss in women.

Like any good news, we've warmed to the studies showing that drinking in moderation is 'healthy', but some researchers warn that the positive benefits linked to alcohol consumption may be overstated. At the end of the day, no medical professional will encourage you to start drinking if you don't already; as we are all aware, the downsides of heavier drinking can be significant.

The key, as it seems with a lot of the food and drink we especially like, is moderation. For women that means up to two standard drinks a day and for men up to three (the difference is not just because men are generally bigger; men metabolise alcohol more effectively than women). Once you start drinking more than moderately, things don't look so good. Alcohol, of any variety, increases blood pressure so higher amounts are not going to be good for overall heart health.

So the trick is to understand what a 'standard drink' is. It's based on the amount of alcohol in the drink, so the lower the alcohol content of your beer, the fewer standard drinks it contains.

Quite a few beers tell you on the label how many standard drinks the can or bottle contains. You can see in our sample that a full-strength beer (usually 4-5% alcohol by volume) accounts for around 1-1.3 standard drinks in a 330ml bottle, whereas a 1.0% alcohol beer is only 0.3 standard drinks.

To understand the claims made about beer you need to understand where the kilojoules come from. You can forget fat: beer barely has any; less than 1%. And protein accounts for only 3-4% of the kilojoules. That leaves carbohydrate and alcohol. In standard beers, alcohol is the biggest contributor.

You can see from the table below that the alcohol and carbohydrate content of different beers varies considerably. You'll also notice that if strong ale is your tipple, you're probably drinking a beer high in both alcohol and carbs, thus very high in kilojoules. Note that these are 'standard' products; what you're actually drinking could be quite different.

For people who are not keen on a low-alcohol beer, but who do want fewer kilojoules, some manufacturers now produce a low-carb option. While the low-carb beers will have nutrition information on the packaging, most beers don't, so it can be difficult to make comparisons. And for people choosing a low-alcohol beer, there is still no guarantee it's a lower kilojoule choice than a higher-alcohol beer, as the carbohydrate content may be higher to add to the flavour.

Beer % alcohol Std drinks
in 330ml
kJ in 330ml Carbs g Sugars g
Low alcohol 1.0 0.3 135 1.9 0.0
Reduced alcohol 2.4 0.8 400 9.2 0.3
Std draught and lager 3.9 1.3 500 6.6 2.0
Extra stout 4.3 1.4 640 12.5 0.3
Premium 4.8 1.6 600 7.3 1.0
Strong ale 6.7 2.2 1015 19.5 19.5

A beer described as 'light' will be less than 3% alcohol by volume, but to be described as 'low-alcohol' a beer must be less than 1.15% alcohol. In our sample, Clausthaler (with 0.5% alcohol) and Mac's Light (at 1.0% alcohol) are both described as 'low-alcohol' on the packaging. The other light beer was Amstel Light (with 2.5% alcohol).

When comparing the kilojoule content of these three beers, you can see the trade-off between kilojoules in alcohol and kilojoules in carbohydrate. Mac's Light has the lowest kilojoule content as it's lower in both, whereas the other two have a similar kilojoule content: Clausthaler is higher in carbohydrate and lower in alcohol; and Amstel Light is higher in alcohol but lower in carbs.

330ml of a standard draught or lager beer contains around 7g of carbohydrate, but there is wide variation. Currently there's no definition of what a low-carb beer is (although there is likely to be in the future). Amongst the beers we sampled that highlighted 'low-carb' or 'lower-carb', the carbohydrate content in a 330ml serve varied from 3.6g in Pure Blond to 4.0g in Haagen (low-carb), and up to 5.3g in Amstel Premium and 5.4g in Mac's Spring Tide ('lower-carb'). All of these beers had the standard alcohol content of between 4 and 5%, so offer lower kilojoules without lowering the alcohol.

The only beers in our sample that carried any nutrition information were the low-carb beers. If you want to know the kilojoule content of other beers, Lion Nathan provides information on some, but not all, of its beers on the website. For others, the only way to get the information is to phone the manufacturer and ask for it. So if you're curious about your favourite beer, that's all we can suggest. (Maybe if they get enough calls they'll put all the information on their websites.)

Even strong ale doesn't contain as much alcohol or kilojoules as wine. Wines are around 12-14% alcohol by volume, so a standard drink of wine is 80-100ml. And while we do tend to consume wine in smaller glasses than beer, that is a very small glass of wine. If we assume a 125ml glass of wine with 12% alcohol, it would equate to 1.5 standard drinks and contain around 510kJ.

How you compare the energy in beer to other alcoholic drinks depends firstly on the amount you're drinking and if drinking spirits, whether you use a standard or diet mixer. The following table is a rough guide.

Drink Alcohol Amount Std
drinks
Energy
Wine 12% 125ml glass 1.5 510kJ
Spirits (70 proof) 35% 1 nip = 20ml
2 nips = 40ml
0.6
1.2
175kJ*
350kJ*
Single gin & tonic   1 nip + 200ml mixer 0.6 475kJ
Double rum & coke   2 nips + 200ml mixer 1.2 750kJ

While beer does contain small amounts of B vitamins and various minerals, you couldn't say that beer is a good source of any particular nutrients unless you're consuming more than the recommended standard drinks.

Some interesting compounds have been isolated from beer and shown to do wondrous things in the lab, like: 'inducing detoxification enzymes to suppress carcinogenesis'. However, it's similar to the resveratrol story from red wine: if you actually drank enough to get the amount of compound required to do you good, you would already have killed yourself through, at the very least, alcohol poisoning.

  • Be aware of how many standard drinks your beer provides. Most will tell you on the packaging, or check out this website for a general guide, which includes other alcoholic drinks as well: www.alac.org.nz/WhatsInAStandardDrink.aspx
  • I don't wish to fuel the 'low-carb' diet mythology, but if you are watching your waistline at least the low-carb beers will tell you how many kilojoules you're drinking. A light or low-alcohol beer is also very likely to have less energy than a standard beer. If it's not on our list, the only way to find out about beer is to check the websites or phone the manufacturers.
  • Let's not forget taste! If you love a beer that's higher in alcohol or energy, that's not necessarily a bad thing. It's really about knowing what you're consuming. At the end of the day, we all need to remember that old-fashioned thing about moderation.



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