Public service announcement: beer – or any alcohol for that matter – is not a health food.
This is just in case you’ve been duped by the latest advertising campaign promoting beer as a sugar-free product – and by default, as somehow healthy because, you know, sugar is the new fat. The advertisement stars actress Antonia Prebble, Olympic rowing champion Eric Murray, singer Hollie Smith and actor Robbie Magasiva. It is made by the Brewers Association, effectively DB and Lion.
The campaign’s tagline is that beer is 99 per cent sugar-free, which implies beer is better for you than yoghurt drinks or that banana protein smoothie you have after the gym. Silly you, why have a smoothie full of sugar when you could have a beer?
Beer has plenty of positive attributes – like malty, hoppy, yeasty flavours – and big breweries shouldn’t need to promote what it doesn’t have. And I infer from the 99 per cent sugar-free tag that you can drink as much of it as you like – hardly on-brand for responsible drinking.
But my biggest gripe is that the advertisement avoids mentioning the elephant in the bottle… how beer gets to be (relatively) sugar-free in the first place. That’s courtesy of a process called fermentation in which yeast converts sugar – shock, horror – into ethanol, a psychoactive substance. Yeast takes all the chemical symbols involved in sugar – C H and O – and arranges them in different order to produce ethanol.
Here’s how maltose (the main sugar in beer) and ethanol are represented:
Oh, and if you think sugar-free means no calories, think again. The original sugar (maltose), once it’s converted to ethanol, still has calories, sorry. There’s slightly fewer calories in the ethanol than the original maltose as explained by my friend Ian Hebblethwaite, of Black Sands brewery:
“Maltose is a di-saccaride comprised of 2 bonded molecules of glucose. As a pure carbohydrate it contains 17kJ per gram. One mole of Glucose produces 2 moles of ethanol and 2 moles of carbon dioxide.
“One mole of Glucose = 180g, one mole of ethanol = 46g and one mole of CO2=44g. So 360g of maltose produces 46 x 4= 184g of ethanol. 360g of maltose contains 6120kJ and the resultant 184g of ethanol contains 5336kJ.
“So the ethanol produced from fermenting maltose has 87% of energy of the maltose.”
Therefore when the big breweries with their slick campaign tell you it’s sugar-free don’t be fooled into thinking all the calories have disappeared into thin air.
And not that ethanol is totally evil.
When consumed in small doses lights up pleasure centres in our brains – and Lord knows we all need a bit of that from time to time. It makes us feel happy, willing to partake in karaoke, dance like no-one’s watching, talk nonsense and generally get along. In larger doses, the fun juice can cause us to kiss people we barely know… and sometimes it has a negative effect, contributing to stupidity, such as driving while under the influence.
At smaller, regulated doses, our livers are well designed to process this toxin. And science has shown humans have evolved to be better at processing alcohol – in a way, nature allowed us a gift which has become an important part of our culture. It’s failing to stick to the small doses that causes most of the problems with alcohol.
In an ideal world we shouldn’t abuse ethanol – but it happens, and as a society we need to work out how we deal with alcohol harm. Pedalling a false truth about what’s not in beer doesn’t help that debate and it does a disservice to the great drink itself.
A more honest way to market beer is take a 5 per cent lager and tag it as 95 per cent ethanol-free. And one of beer’s main attributes is that it’s way more ethanol-free than wine, RTDs and spirits.
Take, for example, a great product from big brewery-owned Emerson’s. Their lowish-alcohol Bookbinder is a great product for anyone wanting to reduce their consumption of psychoactive substances. At 96.7 per cent ethanol-free, this English-style bitter is so packed with flavour you won’t for a minute miss all that sugar.