All hail to the healthy ale

03 October, 2008

Producers don't make health claims for their products, even though there is evidence to say moderate drinking is good for you. Has the healthy drinking debate become too one-sided?

There is no such thing as a good cigarette - even smokers tend to agree that their habit is deadly. Many in the drinks trade fear that alcohol's reputation is sinking just as low as that of tobacco, and yet the evidence against moderate drinking is scant. In fact, there have been countless studies that have discovered health benefits for people who enjoy the occasional drink.

The government wants health warnings on drinks labels - and will impose a mandatory code if suppliers don't band together voluntarily. The idea is to empower consumers to make informed decisions about how much alcohol they consume. Nobody in the trade would dare to suggest to Whitehall that such labels might also mention medical studies that found that moderate drinking could help ward off problems such as cardiovascular disease or osteoporosis.

Famously, in the days before such messages were strictly regulated, Guinness claimed to be "good for you". It's unthinkable that Diageo would revive the campaign these days, yet in 2003 researchers found there was some truth in

it. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin reported that a pint a day of the stout had a similar effect to aspirin, preventing clots that raise the risk of heart attack.

Campbell Evans of the Scotch Whisky Association argues that there are many benefits to controlled drinking which should be highlighted.

"Alcohol producers today should not be afraid to stand up and point out the social benefits of drinking alcohol with friends, nor of highlighting the medical benefits that can be conveyed through responsible drinking," he says. "The local distillery or pub also continues to play an important role

within communities.

"Those that do the industry down and throw statistics out on the harm of misuse regularly fail to note the

benefits and feeling of well-being that flow from social, moderate consumption. It remains the case that the overwhelming majority continue to drink responsibly, and thus can enjoy the benefits that arise from such a pattern of consumption.

"Industry recognises there is a need to tackle the harms of misuse. Highlighting the benefits of moderate drinking in no way denies that fact, but

it ensures there is proper balance."

Constellation Europe's head of communications, Philip Malpass, cites the Lewin report published in the

US in 1993. It

said that if abstainers changed their habits and consumed a glass of wine a day, the country would avoid 34,000 deaths and 1.1 million hospital admissions each year.

"There is a lot of research out there that says that moderate consumption is good for you in certain conditions, but we're constrained from talking about it directly. My concern is that the current noise around misuse is leading to people not remembering, acknowledging or understanding that there may be benefits to moderate consumption.

"We need to be more intelligent as an industry to come up with credible and coherent arguments. Of course there is misuse, but that's not what we're talking about." Malpass says it would take "a very brave medic" to break ranks with a health lobby whose mission seems to be to demonise alcohol, and urges the industry to do more to put evidence, such as that contained in the Lewin report, in the public arena.

Gavin Partington, communications director of the Wine & Spirit Trade Association, agrees. "It's vital the industry isn't gagged, because the

government's own reports have testified to the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption - a fact some officials and campaigners would prefer you to forget .

"In 1995 the government's inter-departmental working group on sensible drinking highlighted the positive role moderate alcohol consumption could play in preventing coronary heart disease.

"It's time we had a bit of balance. It's time officials and anti-alcohol campaigners stopped trying to rewrite history."

Tale of the good ale is alive and kickin'

For centuries, families drank beer instead of disease-ridden water - it was safer and it was also a useful source of calories. Today, beer is rarely taken seriously as a healthy, wholesome drink, something the Beautiful Beer campaign is trying to put right.

"Beer is an entirely natural drink, made from four basic ingredients: barley malt, hops, yeast and water," it says.

"Beer has suffered from a poor image when it comes to health, but

in reality

it offers a number of positive health benefits when drunk in moderation."

It is keen to shake off the "beer belly" reputation. "This has now been exposed as mainly myth, as nutritionists agree that it's caused less by the beer itself than by the calorific snacks or takeaways that we often eat with a few drinks in the pub," it claims.

"In fact, beer contains fewer calories than wine, measure for measure. A typical 25 cl serving of beer contains 102 calories, compared to 192 calories in the same size measure of wine. And beer contains no fat or cholesterol."

It adds: "There's also evidence that a sensible intake of beer can be good for you. Moderate beer drinkers have a substantially reduced risk of coronary heart disease, compared to teetotallers or heavy drinkers. They have a lower risk of developing gallstones or late onset diabetes. And beer is a source of dietary silicon, which protects against osteoporosis."

Some unexpected benefits of moderate drinking

Combating rheumatoid arthritis

In studies carried out in Sweden and Denmark, people who

consumed alcohol

moderately were up to 45% less likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis compared with people who did not drink or drank only occasionally. Among those who had

high consumption, the risk was reduced by up to 55%.

Greater bone density

A study in New York found that moderate alcohol consumption seems to be associated with a lower risk of hip fractures and improved bone density. The same study also found that heavy drinking raises the risk of osteoporosis.

Delaying the onset of dementia

People with mild cognitive impairment can slow their progression to dementia by consuming up to one drink of alcohol a day, according to a study.

Improving IQ

An ongoing study at Japan's National Institute for Longevity has found that the IQ of middle-aged or older men who drink wine regularly is on average 3.3 points higher than that of men who d o

not drink. Women drinkers' IQs were found to be 2.5 points higher than those of teetotallers.

Reduced risk of prostate problems

Benign prostate hyperplasia causes painful and frequent urination in half of 50-year-old men and 80% of men aged 70. Men who consume two or more alcoholic drinks per day are 33% less likely to develop BPH than abstainers, research has found.

Protecting lungs

A study at Kaiser Permanente Hospital in Oakland, California, found that moderate alcohol consumption may have a protective effect

on lung function. Researchers found that people who drank up to two glasses of alcohol per day of wine, beer, or spirits had much less likelihood of developing obstructive airways disease s

such as asthma.

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