Charles Bamforth’s book on beer and health offers both a walk through history as well as complex summary of the role of alcohol in heart disease, diabetes and cognitive function for example. He also analyses the various components in beer and explains the role of its trace elements, polyphenols and vitamins in relation to other food sources and the bodies’ needs.
‘The supermarket shelves are loaded with all manner of food stuffs fortified with this or that. Beer is no different except that there is no overt fortification going on... beer is rich in valuable nutrients’ These include complex B vitamins, potassium, magnesium, silicon and selenium.
Bamforth makes an interesting point that is often forgotten, whereby alcohol is often used as an excuse for anti-social behaviour central to the binge drinking debate.
‘Certainly excessive alcohol intake can reduce inhibitions that could increase the likelihood that a football yob will wreak havoc. However it is not the alcohol any more or less than the soccer itself that has made the thug what he is’
Historically, beer was the staple family drink, brewed by women, as water was unsafe to drink. It was only in the C18th with the advent of cleaner water and the introduction of tea and coffee that Britain, in particular, moved away from beer. It was the industrialisation of Britain and the move away from villages to towns that led to the advent of the great breweries to ‘slake the nation’s thirst’. There were 48,000 ale houses by 1810 for a population of 8 million and beer was accepted as part of the daily diet (see below) Queen Victoria said ‘Give my people plenty of beer, good beer and cheap beer and you will have no revolution among them.’ It was the increasing use of cheap gin (no tax) in Britain and whisky in the US that lead to prohibition movements as these were not drunk as a ‘food’ but for inebriation and escapism, leading to poverty and destitution in some cases.
It was acceptable for beer to be marketed as healthy, and a pregnant or nursing mother was expected to drink a bottle of stout a day. Both Guinness and Mackesons were advertised as ‘good for you’ up until the 1950’s
The book also reveals, that contrary to the press, there are fewer drunken offenders in the UK now, than since records began in 1964 (average of 16 per 10,000 people, against 11.7 in 1988 and 7.7 in the year 2000).
On the drinking patterns of the Mediterranean countries, where excess is rarely a feature, against Northern Europe, Bamforth makes the following observations:
‘Drinking tends to be unproblematic when it is a normal, wholesome, enjoyable aspect of everyday life - not an unwholesome, dangerous and mysterious activity to be done in peculiar contexts that are set apart from friends, family and the normal routine of living. Drinking is much like eating, in the salutary view of Italians and many others, a view that contrasts markedly with the special quest for relaxation, relief of psychic stress, delusions of power or escape that prevail in much of Northern Europe and North America’.
Bamforth concludes ‘For a vast part of society’s history, and in a great number of countries, beer has been a staple part of the diet, more so than any other alcoholic beverage. it is the drink of moderation for the general classes.... beer has never been so wholesome. Bamforth argues that an intake of 2 pints a day has a beneficial impact on the body, especially in reducing CHD... but this is still a message that sits uncomfortable at the highest levels.... I do not believe that any producer of alcohol containing beverages should overtly market a product on the basis of health benefit, but I do believe that beer and other alcoholic drinks can form a rich and pleasurable aspect of a fulfilling lifestyle’.
Beer Health and Nutrition is published by Blackwell Science via
www.blackwellpublishing.com ISBN 0-632-06446-3