Craft beer often features funky labels, quirky descriptions and creative ingredients. But while it might look healthier than mass-produced brews, the real way to select the healthiest option is by taking stock of what’s inside the can.
Some alcohol manufacturers voluntarily provide nutrition facts on their labeling, though the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau doesn’t require it, which can make it difficult to compare beers’ nutritional value (or lack thereof).
But first things first. The Brewers Association defines American craft beer as produced by an independently owned brewery in small quantities (6 million or fewer barrels each year) and using traditional brewing methods. In practice, though, what many of us refer to as craft beers are trendy beer styles such as session IPAs, fruit-fruit flavored sour beers and hard ciders.
Big Beer still rules the market, with AB InBev and MillerCoors controlling 72 percent of beer sales, according to Business Insider. But after eight years of consecutive double-digit growth, craft brewers reported a 13 percent increase in volume in 2015.
Beer isn’t a health food, but it does have health benefits?
Both mass-produced and small-batch beer contains selenium, B vitamins, phosphorus, folate and niacin, as well as protein and fiber. It’s also one of the few dietary sources of silicon, which can help prevent osteoporosis, according to NPR.
“Beers containing high levels of malted barley and hops are richest in silicon,” Dr. Brunilda Nazario, associate medical director at WebMD, told The Huffington Post. And while it might seem like mass-produced beers would be lower in nutrients than their small-batch counterparts, that’s not the case, according to Charlie Bamforth, a professor of brewing science at the University of California Davis. He told NPR that even the big beers are largely made with natural grain-based sugars and few additives.
A “common myth about beer is that it’s loaded with calories and is the cause of the so-called ‘beer belly,’” Nazario added. “But when comparing calories for different foods and drinks, there’s no scientific evidence or basis for beer causing abdominal obesity when consumed in moderation.”
Before you reach for that IPA, check its ABV
Of course, you shouldn’t start drinking beer for the health benefits. Regardless of what type of beer you choose, consuming alcohol means adding calories to your diet. And while we don’t advocate for calorie counting just for the sake of calorie counting, consuming too many alcoholic beverages can easily put a dent in an otherwise healthy lifestyle.
One important factor to note when choosing a beer is average alcohol volume, or ABV. While the average ABV for craft beers is only slightly higher than it is for beer overall ― 5.9 percent ABV compared to 5 percent ABV ― certain beer styles can contain two, or even three, times as much alcohol as the average brew. For example, Dogfish Head’s 120 Minute IPA has an ABV between 15 and 20 percent.
ABV is the most important factor to look for because beers with higher ABVs are typically higher in calories, Kelly Hogan, clinical nutrition coordinator at the Dubin Breast Center of the Tisch Cancer Institute of Mount Sinai Hospital, told HuffPost.
“Every gram of alcohol contains about 7 calories,” Hogan explained. “The more alcohol in a beer, the more calories it will likely contain.” And since alcohol inhibits decision making, you may be more likely to reach for that slice of pizza or cheese fries if you are consuming higher amounts of alcohol.
“Drinking responsibly should include being aware of the ABV,” Nazario said. “On one end of the spectrum you’ll find beers such as an American lager or barrel-aged beer. These tend to have the some of the lowest content of alcohol. But on the other end are many of the specialty beers or American barley or wheat wine beer and ale.”
The danger of not paying attention to ABV is unknowingly consuming as much alcohol in one beer as you might normally consume in two or three. In addition to the short-term risks of overindulging, like alcohol poisoning, drinking too much over time can cause serious long-term health problems, including cancer, depression and alcoholism.
Light-colored beer isn’t necessarily less alcoholic
“Hoppy beers like IPAs typically contain more alcohol, calories and carbs,” even though they are lighter in color, Hogan said. “Keep in mind a dark stout like Guinness can also be lower in calories.” (This is mostly because of its lower ABV.)
“A lager is also a decent choice if you are looking for a lower calorie beer due to its lower sugar content,” she said. And perhaps unsurprisingly, sweet-tasting beers tend to contain more residual sugars, which translates to more calories and more carbohydrates, than their drier counterparts such as lagers and pale lagers.
In spite of appearances or reputation, a beer’s mix of ingredients and how much alcohol it contains matters more than the size of the brewery that produced it.
And even the least alcoholic beer should be enjoyed in moderation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends adults limit alcohol consumption to one drink per day for women or two drinks per day for men.
That’s especially good to keep in mind if you prefer a brew with an ABV that’s triple the average.
“The less you weigh, the more you’re going to be effected by the alcohol content of the drink,” Nazario said. “Because men are bigger and have a lower amount of body fat compared to women, they tend to have a higher tolerance for alcohol.
“Consider drinking beer with food to help slow the absorption of alcohol, but don’t bet on it to prevent intoxication,” she cautioned. “It won’t.”