What is low-alcohol and alcohol-free beer?
Beer is one of the oldest and most widely consumed alcoholic beverages. However, nearly one in three people now regularly opt for low-alcohol or alcohol-free versions.
So, what’s the difference between regular beer and its low-alcohol or alcohol-free alternatives, apart from the obvious?
Like all alcoholic drinks, the alcohol content of beer is measured as a percentage of the total drink, known as Alcohol by Volume (ABV).
According to UK law, the ABV requirements for beer are as follows:
“Alcohol-free” – no more than 0.05% ABV*
De-alcoholized – no more than 0.5% ABV
Low alcohol – no more than 1.2% ABV
Alcoholic – contains more than 1.2% ABV
Alcohol-free beer is made by preventing the formation of alcohol during the brewing process. De-alcoholized beer, on the other hand, has the alcohol removed through either boiling or filtration.
*Note: The ABV values for “alcohol-free” beer differ in the UK compared to those specified by the European Union.
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Low-alcohol products have similar protein, carbohydrate, and sugar content to regular beer, but their calorie count sets them apart. The lower alcohol content typically results in fewer calories.
Beer, made from barley malt, hops, and yeast, contains naturally occurring plant compounds called polyphenols. About 70-80% of these polyphenols are derived from malt. Polyphenols are believed to have various health benefits, including supporting circulation, reducing blood pressure, and lowering inflammation.
Why choose a low-alcohol beer?
Alcohol can be harmful to health, and the World Health Organization reminds us that it is a toxic and psychoactive substance that contributes to 3 million deaths globally each year.
While moderate alcohol consumption may have some cardiovascular benefits, excessive or regular alcohol intake, even in modest amounts, can increase the risk of atrial fibrillation (AF) and other health issues. Beer and cider consumption, in particular, may influence the risk of AF.
Considering this, along with changes in drinking habits during the COVID-19 pandemic, the low-alcohol sector has seen consistent growth.
Is low-alcohol beer healthy?
Low-alcohol or “alcohol-free” beer has certain benefits. Choosing these options makes it easier to stay within recommended drinking guidelines due to their lower alcohol content. Additionally, low-alcohol beer has less impact on blood alcohol concentration, making it a better choice for designated drivers.
Both alcoholic and low-alcohol beer, depending on their source and production methods, are rich in polyphenols. These compounds provide color and flavor to the beer and have protective properties associated with several health benefits.
For example, beer-derived polyphenols are important fuel for gut bacteria. They are fermented in the colon by gut microbes, resulting in beneficial effects on gut health and immunity. Hops-derived polyphenols may offer relief from symptoms such as hot flushes for menopausal women. Consuming polyphenols in alcohol-free form eliminates the negative effects of alcohol while potentially providing some benefits.
Recent advances and innovation in low-alcohol beer have revealed further potential benefits.
Although certain aspects of low-alcohol and alcohol-free beers may be better for you than regular beer, moderation is still key. Like regular beer, they are high in carbs and may contribute to weight gain and other health issues. If you want to increase your polyphenol intake, healthier dietary sources such as fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices are recommended.
Is low-alcohol beer as enjoyable as regular beer?
Overall, the taste and enjoyment of low-alcohol beer are well accepted. Some drinkers, when unaware of the beer’s alcohol content, stated that they couldn’t tell the difference. This is because new generation low-alcohol products are produced using traditional craft beer methods, which often involve less heat. These methods not only enhance the flavor but may also retain more natural polyphenols. By reducing the negatives associated with beer, such as excess alcohol and calories, low-alcohol beer can be considered a healthier option.
Is low-alcohol beer safe for everyone?
While low-alcohol and “alcohol-free” beer may be suitable for many people, there are certain groups who should avoid them.
The safe consumption of alcohol during pregnancy is still debated, so it’s safest to abstain from alcohol entirely while pregnant. It’s worth noting that “alcohol-free” beer may contain small amounts of alcohol despite its name.
Those who are alcohol-dependent or recovering from alcoholism should avoid consuming low-alcohol or “alcohol-free” beer. Even the small amount of alcohol in these products can trigger cravings and lead to relapse.
If you enjoy drinking alcohol, it is recommended that you have at least two consecutive alcohol-free days each week. It is also advisable to spread your alcohol consumption over three or more days to minimize health risks associated with heavy drinking or binge sessions.