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Wine or Beer: Which Is Better for You?

By Jude Buglewicz
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Now that beer is once again the alcohol of choice for Americans, with 41 percent claiming it as their preferred drink, according to a recent Gallup Poll, it's worth asking, are we making a mistake? After all, beer was a close second last year to wine, and wine has gotten a lot of good press lately. Should we be chugging less and sipping more? Which one is really better for youwine or beer?

It's well known that moderate levels of alcohol have heart-healthy benefitsany kind of alcohol. The key word, though, is moderate, whether it's beer, wine, or the hard stuff. Recommended levels of alcohol raise "good" (HDL) cholesterol and help decrease blood clots, which cause heart attacks and strokes. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that men have less than two drinks a day and women no more than one drinkand we don't mean a Paris Hilton-sized "one margarita." According to the AHA, "one drink" means 12 ounces of beer, 4 ounces of wine, 1.5 ounces of 80-proof hard liquor, or 1 ounce of 100-proof liquor. (For more on alcohol and your health, read Steve Edwards' "The 5 Best and the 5 Worst Cocktails.")

And by the way, if you're a teetotaler, it's probably not wise to take up drinking in hopes of benefiting from alcohol, especially if you suffer from liver disease, gastritis, or high blood pressure. As the AHA cautions, it's safer to keep avoiding alcohol than risk becoming dependent on it. (Try reducing stress or relaxing with yoga instead—good for drinkers, too!) But if you drink and you can stick to the recommended levels, here are some things you might want to consider the next time you're deciding between that bottle of vino or a six-pack of brewskies.

Wine

Currently in second place with 33 percent of alcohol-imbibing Americans claiming it as their favorite drink, wine was known in ancient times as the nectar of the gods. Over the past 10 years, its popularity has steadily increased, peaking last year at 39 percent, and knocking the longtime champ, beer, out of the top spot. Some credit the movie Sideways for that boost in popularity, while others (beer drinkers, naturally) say it was a fluke or a statistical error. No matter. If you're a wine lover, you have much to be proud of, like these impressive findings, for starters:

  1. Wine drinkers live longer. A 2000 Danish study found that "Wine drinkers had significantly lower mortality from both coronary heart disease and cancer than did non-wine drinkers." In fact, wine drinkers reduced their risk of death by one third compared to nondrinkers. People who drank beer and other alcohol had a 10 percent decrease in mortality compared to nondrinkers, so this group showed beneficial effects of moderate alcohol consumption, too, though not as much as the wine drinkers.

  2. Wine drinkers have lower cancer rates. This may be because of something called resveratrol, a substance found in the skin of grapes (and to a lesser degree in peanuts and blueberries). It's been touted as the answer to the so-called French Paradoxor why the wine-drinking French have low rates of heart disease though their diet is high in saturated fat and cholesterol (from those rich cheeses and sauces and pork). Resveratrol has been shown to help slow the formation and growth of cancer, though researchers say more studies are needed to confirm this. It's only found in red wine, though, not white, since white wine is fermented without the skin.

  3. Wine drinkers eat better. A more recent study (2006)again from Denmarkfound that wine drinkers make healthier food choices than beer drinkers. For six months, researchers tracked the sales of wine and beer drinkers in 98 supermarkets. Wine shoppers tended to choose healthy items such as fruits, vegetables, olives, and low-fat cheeses, as opposed to the fattening chips, cold cuts, soda pop, and sausages that beer buyers selected. These findings are significant, since most of the information on alcohol consumption to date has come from surveys, in which people tend to overstate how healthy their diets are and understate how much they drink. This study is believed to be more accurate, as it shows the actual dietary choices of drinkers.

Another interesting finding is that wine buyers spent more than beer buyers, though people who bought both wine and beer spent most of all. Researchers also noted that wine drinkers tend to be better educated and wealthier than beer drinkers, which also results in better health.

So if we can extend our life span and decrease our risk of getting cancer by drinking wine, why do more Americans drink beer?

Beer

It's cheaper and more accessible than wine. Also, the beer industry does a great job of marketing its product. All you have to do is tune into a sports telecast, especially a football game, to see the ubiquitous beer commercials. That may explain why twice as many men as women drink domestic beer. Three companies dominate the U.S. beer market, selling 81 percent of all domestic beer: Anheuser-Busch, Miller, and Coors. American-made beer, by the way, includes chemicals to prolong its shelf life (otherwise, it lasts about six months), high-fructose corn syrup, and other ingredients that make it less healthy than many imports. But how does beer compare to wine regarding health benefits?

  1. Beer is more nutritious than wine. Unfiltered beer contains nearly all the B vitamins, several minerals, and as many antioxidants as wine (though different ones, since wine comes from grapes and beer is made with grains, mainly barley and hops). And though beer has only a small percentage of the recommended daily allowance of vitamins, it contains significant amounts of trace metals and minerals. Both wine and beer are made with yeast, but the yeast is filtered out of wine. Not so with the many varieties of unfiltered beer on the marketthe vitamins in the yeast are preserved. (Look for "genuine draft beers," also known as "ice" beers. They have to be kept refrigerated to preserve their flavor. Unfiltered beer also includes many "craft" beers, which are nearly all malt as opposed to best-selling American beers that are made with 30 to 40 percent rice or corn, and sugar.)

  2. Beer reduces heart disease. Besides the fact already mentioned that moderate levels of any alcohol reduces heart diseaseincluding beer and winea 2001 Czech Republic study found that vitamin B6 in beer reduces the buildup of the amino acid homocysteine in the blood, which has been linked to heart disease.

  3. Beer drinkers have low-cal alternatives. Light beer is the best-selling of all the beer segments, with four of the top five leading brews consumed in the U.S.: Bud Light, Miller Lite, Coors Light, Natural Light. Light beer didn't even exist 30 years ago, so its triumph in the beer market is a testament to the beer industry's willingness to cater to health- and weight-conscious consumers. And though purists and beer connoisseurs may scoff at its "watered down" taste, light beer is a good choice if you're watching your waistline.

The winner?

The evidence points to red wine. It's true, as some beer fans complain, that wine gets all the good press. Beer, on the other hand, is linked to binge drinking and unhealthy habits. (Drinking alcohol in excess reverses its good benefits and could even lead to addiction or liver disease.) It's also true that wine drinkers tend to have healthier lifestyles. In the U.S. in 1999, beer accounted for four-fifths (81 percent) of all the alcohol consumed in hazardous amounts (five or more drinks per day), compared to wine (4 percent). These stats may have something to do with all those beer commercials that associate drinking beer with being sexy, fun, and socially acceptable. For every "responsibility" and "awareness" ad that the beer industry aired in 2002, there were 226 alcohol product ads. No wonder beer is this nation's most popular drink and the alcoholic beverage of choice for underage drinkers.

I have to admitI prefer beer, Guinness Stout in particular. And though red wine does appear to have the edge insofar as it has the most health benefits, since either wine or beer is fine in moderation, we beer drinkers can hang on to our frosty mugs and leave the elegant stemware to the wine drinkers. (Beer drinkers do have to be extra conscious of the snacks we choose, though, and take a few tips from the wine crowd, replacing fattening chips and dips and greasy pizzas with healthier fare, like whole grain crackers with low-fat cheese or veggie platters with low-fat dips.) Whichever you choose, remember this:

  • With red wine, you'll get the benefits of resveratrol (not with white wine and not with beer).

  • Red wine also has eight times as many flavonoids (cancer-fighting antioxidants) as white wine.

  • Most red wines have slightly more calories than white wines, though sweet dessert wines have the most calories of all.

  • Dark beer has three times as many flavonoids as ales; however, it also usually has more calories, so check the labels!

If it's calories you want to know about, here's a breakdown for recommended levels of beer, wine, and spirits:

ALCOHOL

CALORIES

Beer (12 oz.)
Light 96–110
Regular 145–155
Nonalcoholic beer 150
Dark (Beck's, Guinness Extra Stout) 146–153
Dark (Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada) 195–210
White wine (4 oz.)
Sauvignon blanc 80
Chablis 85
Chardonnay 90
Red wine (4 oz.)
White zinfandel 80
Rose 95
Red zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon 90
Bordeaux, burgundy, Beaujolais, merlot, claret 95
Chianti 100
Sangria 115
Sweet dessert wine (4 oz.)
Riesling 90
Sauterne (white) 115
Sherry (dry) 140
Sherry (regular) 160
Port (white) 170
Port (ruby) 185
Madeira 168
Champagne (4 oz.)
Pink 100
Dry 105
Distilled spirits (1.5 oz. shot)
80-proof liquor (most vodkas, rums, tequilas, gins, blended whiskeys, etc.) 100
100-proof liquor 124
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