Beer's Health Benefits, Consumed In Moderation, May Be Similar To Those Of Wine

11/16/2011 02:15 pm ET | Updated Nov 18, 2011

Oenophiles have been looking down their noses at beer drinkers since time began. But the past few years have given grape-lovers a particularly powerful weapon against the unwashed masses of grain-supporters: health claims. A series of studies showed that red wine had life-extending health benefits, possibly because of a chemical called resveratrol, unmatched by any other alcoholic beverage.

Two recent studies, though, may turn the tables on smug wine drinkers.

The first brought the news that drinking red wine may increase women's risk of breast cancer. Women who drank more than four glasses a day -- admittedly more than previous studies had shown to be helpful -- face a 15% higher risk of the disease, according to the researchers.

The second, though, is even more surprising. A massive meta-analysis of epidemiological data on alcohol and health, conducted by Italy's Fondazione di Ricerca e Cura, showed that moderate consumption of beer decreases drinkers' risk of heart disease by 31%, just as much as moderate consumption of wine. The Italian findings were based on data from over 200,000 people's drinking habits. The study found no benefit to consumption of spirits, which may indicate that something other than ethanol consumption per se is responsible for the health boost.

Other studies have demonstrated a link between good health and beer consumption, but this one is striking in the degree of the benefit.

Before you rush out to the grocery story to buy a six-pack though, a word of caution: both studies are epidemiological in nature. As such, they rely on real-world consumption of alcohol, so they introduce biases that would not crop up in a carefully-controlled double-blind study of alcohol use, which would obviously be impossible to conduct. This is a problem because drinking often goes hand-in-hand with other behaviors that might be beneficial to health. Studies have consistently linked drinking to higher levels of education and income, for example.

Still, the two studies go some ways toward dismantling the formidable arsenal wine fans have at their disposal -- and all beer drinkers can be grateful for that.

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