A new study reports that some types of beer contain a lot of silicon, which may counter some age-related bone degeneration.
The study, carried out by the Department of Food Science & Technology at the University of California, resulted in the kind of simplistic "beer is good for you" headlines and lazy reporting we've all come to expect. The truth is more complex -- and interesting.
Beer is an ancient beverage, dating back at least 9,000 years. By definition, beer is a drink made primarily from water and grass seeds (otherwise known as grains).
Alcoholic beverages always need a source of sugar. In the case of beer, that sugar is normally supplied by the grain, which has starch that's converted into sugar during the brewing process.
Most beers are made with malted barley. The malting process is little more than taking whole barley grains, and sprouting them -- starting the growing process, called germination -- then drying the grains in an oven once the sprouts have emerged from the grains. (The picture accompanying this post shows malted barley.) The purpose of the malting process is to convert the starches in the grain into fermentable sugar.
Some beers are made from sprouted wheat, rather than sprouted barley. But it turns out that beer made with barley is higher in the silicon that benefits bone health.
So let's be clear about what the researchers are reporting. It was already well known that sprouted barley and other sprouted grains offer dietary silicon, which is good for bones. Its role is to boost the bone-building power of dietary calcium and also vitamin D, which is a hormone produced by the skin when exposed to sunshine. It's also worth noting that the sprouting process improves the nutritional quality of grains in other ways, including boosting its protein quantity and improving the relative quantities of various amino acids.
The University of California research has found that much of the silicon in sprouted barley and other grains survives the brewing, bottling and storage processes of beer, and is still present in the final product. They also discovered some detailed facts about which types of beers and which brewing processes best convey the greatest amount of silicon to the final product.
So just to recap: Sprouted grains contain silicon, and silicon is good for your bones. Beer is made from sprouted grains, and so it also contains silicon. The bottom line is not that "beer is good for you." Beer is a nutritional mixed bag. Most commercial, industrial beer is junk food. Some higher-quality beers are much better for you. But alcohol is hard on your body, and is best consumed only occasionally, if at all. Don't look to beer as a substitute for healthy food.
The ancient Spartans didn't drink beer. But they did eat sprouted-grains all the time -- mostly barley, but also wheat. In fact, as some classical-era Greeks (generally the wealthier ones) increasingly ate more wheat and less barley, the Spartans -- rich and poor alike -- stuck with barley as their primary grain.
Our modern Spartan Diet also calls for the near-daily consumption of sprouted barley or wheat.
In the meantime, look to food, not beer, for nutrition. Embrace the Spartan Diet, and you'll get all the sprouted barley and wheat you need.
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