Low-carb beers are a beer of the moment. They are the “IT girl” of the beer world with their sales growing at a remarkable 900 per cent per year and, as Cooper’s entry onto the market shows, every man and his dog who owns a brewery is clamouring to get one into the market.
Despite this, you won’t find too many brewers bragging about the beers in any sense other than the technical achievement in producing them. Beer marketers and brewery bean counters will sing their praises endlessly, but the actual brewers seem to stay silent on them – a little like Hunter S. Thompson might have done if he had had a sideline writing Mills and Boon novels. When they do mention them it is usually in the pragmatic terms of giving the market what they want.
The key to the category’s success–apart from their light flavour profile–is in their name: low carb. Beer companies who can’t make any claims about the health or nutritional benefits of their product can whack the description “low carb” in big letters on a bottle and in doing so wrap their beer in a cloak woven from all that the phrase connotes. It’s the beer maker’s dream because it’s a phrase that conjures up images of the front cover of Men’s Health magazine rather the “Norm” character in the Life. Be In It campaigns of the 70s and 80s.
But where does the truth lie? Is beer the root of abdominal evil and are carbohydrate modified beers the key to eternal lithe?
The answer is no on both counts.
Trent Watson is a nutritionist with a remarkably laid back attitude to life. A former aspiring professional Rugby League player before reality and years caught up with him, he lists beer and red meat as two of his favourite foods. He’s the sort of bloke that blokes want to get dietary advice from and spends his days consulting to businesses such as mining companies on health and good diets.
Trent says that he gets lots of guys that come in and tell a similar story.
“They come in and tell me they’ve cut beer and red meat and all the ‘bad’ things out of their diet, but they’re still putting on weight,” Trent says.
“When I ask them what they are eating they often proudly say they’re eating good stuff, like 10 pieces of fruit a day.”
And there, according to Trent, is the problem. While fruit is great for us, you can have too much of a good thing. Most fruit is high in natural sugars and so is quite high in kilojoules and it is kilojoules that are the culprit in weight gain. While fruit should be consumed in a healthy diet, too much of it can cause weight gain too. It is the same with beer. While Trent says it is ok to enjoy a beer or two, too much of any beer–even low–carb beer, is going to have the same effect.
As Trent explains it, the food and drink we consume are the fuel for our bodies. Kilojoules are units of energy in that fuel. The amount of fuel that each person needs varies, but in general for the average male 178 centimetres high and weighing 70 kilograms would need 9-10,000 kilojoules to maintain their body weight. Consume fewer kilojoules and you will generally lose weight, consume more and that excess energy is stored by the body as fat.
So far as the ‘beer belly’ goes, there is no mystical ingredient of beer that causes weight gain, least of all carbohydrates. All beer is pretty low in carbohydrates because they are generally converted into alcohol through the mashing and fermentation processes. Beer isn’t so kind in kilojoules because it contains alcohol, a powerful source of kilojoules. The energy value of alcohol is 29 kilojoules per gram compared to 16 kilojoules per gram for carbohydrates.
An average full strength beer contains about 550 kilojoules, a reduced-alcohol beer about 400 kilojoules, an average full-strength carbohydrate-modified beer 460 kilojoules. So, an average carbohydrate-modified beer adds more to your daily intake of kilojoules even though lower in carbohydrates. If you knock off a six-pack of your favourite carbohydrate-modified beer, you’re still consuming a quarter of your daily energy intake…before you even open that packet of chips, take a bite out of that pizza or stop off for a kebab on the way home.
The myth of the beer belly also fuels perceptions that beer is more fattening than wine, though wine contains more than two and a half times as many kilojoules as beer, even though lower in carbohydrates. Perhaps this is why it is so difficult to find nutritional information about wine. Each of the major brewers transparently lists the carbohydrate and kilojoule information about their beers on the websites, but those same websites are silent on the nutritional information of their wines. The same is true of packaging with the information available on beer bottles, but not on wine bottles.
One of the few winemakers offering information about its nutritional content is Preece on its Lighter in Alcohol site. Preece, owned by Lion Nathan, offers no nutritional information on its main website, but offers the following information to market its lower alcohol model:
*Preece Lighter in Alcohol Semillon Sauvignon Blanc has 30% less calories and is 30% lighter in alcohol than the current Preece Sauvignon Blanc
At 30 per cent lighter than its main brand, Preece still weighs in at 294kj per 100ml, or 441kj per 150ml standard serve, compared to 161kj per 100ml for the Lion Nathan-owned Tooheys New. It’s no wonder wine makers don’t advertise the nutritional content of their 30 per cent higher in kilojoules regular wines.
While beer drinkers may tend to consume more beer by volume, at two and a half times the kiloujoules, it doesn’t take too many wines to add up.
So, do we need to cut beer out of our diets to stay trim? According to beer-loving Trent, the answer is no.
“Enjoying a couple of beers for its finest properties–it’s taste–can even improve your health,” Trent says.
“The best advice to keep enjoying a beer and staying as happy and healthy as possible is to choose beers that suit your taste and savour every mouthful – in the right amount.”
“If you’re serious about losing weight but still want a beer, the answer is go with lower alcohol.”
I’ll drink to that!
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