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Are low alcohol or alcohol-free drinks healthy?
If you head into a pub or bar today, you will most likely be presented with a selection of both alcoholic drinks and their low- or no-alcohol counterparts. Low alcohol beers and wines have become incredibly popular in the last few years as we have become more health conscious. Whilst these drinks may taste good and offer a way to socialise whilst avoiding later hangovers, are they actually good for our health? We asked 2 experts in nutrition, ‘Are low alcohol or alcohol-free drinks healthy?’, here is what they said…
Are low alcohol or alcohol-free drinks healthy?
What are low-alcohol and alcohol-free drinks?
Dr Duane Mellor, a dietician from Aston University in the UK, says “The industrialisation of brewing led to higher alcohol levels in modern beers, which together with their energy and carbohydrate content means beer is now associated with poor health and disease. Growing concerns about the health effects of excessive beer consumption has driven increased interest in no-alcohol and low-alcohol (“nolo”) beers, especially in adults under 30. The acceptability of these beers has increased recently, in part due to brewing developments that require less heat and so retain more of the original flavours.”
The exact alcohol thresholds that a drink must fall between to be advertised as ‘alcohol-free or ‘low-alcohol’ vary in different countries, for example in the UK ‘alcohol-free’ drinks must have less than 0.05% ABV (alcohol by volume), whilst ‘low-alcohol’ must be between 0.5-1.2% ABV. There are different methods used to reduce alcohol content in drinks, including diluting the drink, limiting the fermentation process and removing the alcohol by distillation.
What are the health benefits of switching from alcoholic to low-alcohol drinks?
Dr Tim Crowe, a nutrition expert from Thinking Nutrition, says “When it comes to alcohol, it is a major risk factor for many types of cancer and is the second leading global risk factor for cancer after smoking. As the amount of alcohol a person drinks increases, so too does their risk of cancer. Combine that with other health effects on the liver, brain and heart plus the societal issues of violence and injuries, then drinking less can be an important health priority for many people. Changing to low-alcohol or non-alcoholic alcohol drinks is a good way for a person to reduce how much they drink.”
Do low-alcohol drinks have any health benefits?
It makes sense that low alcohol drinks are healthy when compared to their more alcoholic counterparts, but do low- or no-alcohol drinks have any health benefits as compared to other drinks such as water?
Dr Mellor says that “Beer and nolo beer are rich in polyphenols due to the barley and hops, which means beer can contain over 50 different compounds that could provide benefits from affecting gastrointestinal health to controlling bacteria growth. Beers containing more hops, such as IPAs, tend to contain even more of these potential health-promoting polyphenols than lagers.” He explains that “Polyphenols are a large group of compounds found in hops and grains that have been linked to a reduced risk of disease. They have been shown in laboratory tests to be powerful antioxidants, which can mop up dangerous free radicals in the body’s cells, which if left unchecked can increase the risk of diseases, such as heart disease and cancer”
Can no-alcohol drinks be used as sports drinks?
Dr Mellor says “There is now recognition that nolo beers can potentially be marketed as health products. German brewer Erdinger’s alcohol-free wheat beer contains electrolytes that can aid the absorption of water to help digestion – something often referred to as ‘isotonic’ when found in a sports drink. The beer is also a source of folate and vitamin B12 due to the action of the yeast in the bottled beer (particularly important for vegans, for whom there are few natural sources of vitamin B12 available).” He explains that “Erdinger market this beer as ‘isotonic’ and ‘a sporty thirst quencher’, which suggests it has identified that the beer is both suitable for, and is of interest to, groups beyond those wishing to avoid alcohol. The sports drink potential of nolo beers has been tested in the lab too, with low alcohol beers being almost as good as sports drinks for rehydrating, especially if a pinch of salt is added.”
What is the downside of low alcohol drinks?
Dr Crowe says “it is important to realise that it can be easy to overconsume non-alcoholic drinks (many of which are still a source of energy) as they don’t fill you up in the same way that food does, meaning that we can easily drink a lot of kilojoules without realising it. For someone carrying too much weight that can compound health issues linked to that.” Some low and no-alcohol drinks contain more carbohydrates and sugar than their alcoholic counterparts, so it’s important to keep an eye on the labels and try to opt for lower-calorie drinks where possible.
No- and low-alcohol drinks are good ways for mild and moderate drinkers to reduce their alcohol intake, but they are not recommended for those with alcohol addiction.
Low- and no-alcohol drinks can be considered healthy, particularly when they are used to replace higher alcohol beverages.
May the facts be with you!
Does moderate alcohol consumption increase risk of cancer?
To more about the health impacts of alcohol, why we drink it and whether it helps us get to sleep, check our review: Alcohol
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