Monday, 13 August 2012

Low-carb Beer

One of the popular beers at the moment, especially among women, is the low-carb beer which is widely believed to be a healthier beer than normal beers. These beers often command a premium price and are widely advertised by brewers. Is low-carb beer really better for you or is it just an urban myth?

A ‘low-carb diet’ is one of the gym junkie’s favourite phrases, but I have noticed that many people that use the word do not know what a ‘carb’ is, this is not surprising considering the misleading information published on body building and dieting websites. Carb comes from the word carbohydrate which in chemistry means a substance which is made from molecules of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen in various combinations. The discussion over good carbs, bad carbs, simple carbs and modified carbs is far too complex to even contemplate here.

Beer has been brewed for centuries and the basic formula has hardly changed at all. The main ingredients are:
  • Hops to give the flavour and aroma, hops are often added at least three times during the brewing process.
  • Barley is malted to provide the enzymes, starches and complex sugars, otherwise known as carbs, that help to determine the type and alcohol content of beer. This is known as the mash.
  • Yeast ferments the sugars, to produce alcohol, carbon dioxide and flavour. Yeasts can be top fermenting for ales and bottom fermenting for lager.
  • Secret ingredient(s) that make a beer or a stout very special. Incidentally, stout originally meant strong beer.
Lager yeasts and ale yeasts ferment at different temperatures, ale ferments at 21C for two weeks and lager ferments at 9C for six weeks. A lot of heat is generated by fermentation and the vats are held in strictly controlled air conditioning. Fermentation is terminated when the correct alcohol level is reached.

Many types of yeast cannot ferment complex sugars leaving up to about 50% of the sugars as a residue in the beer. The residue is the carb content of the beer. A breakdown of the well known 355ml Fosters beer gives us:
  • Carbohydrate = 11.0g,   Calories from Carbohydrate = 31%
  • Alcohol     = 13.8g,   Calories from Alcohol =      69%
  • Total calories = 142
Low-carb dieters should be aware that carbs are not the same as calories, both carbs and alcohol contain calories with alcohol containing the most calories per gram.

In order to produce low carb beer the barley must be prepared at lower temperatures to produce a specially modified mash. Extra enzymes are introduced so that the sugars produced are mostly convertible sugars. Breweries do not employ retired wrestlers with large hammers to pound the grain in spite of what the advertisement suggests.

Lets look at the calories and carbs in 355ml ‘Pure Blonde’ low carb beer:
  • Carbohydrate content = 3.2g,    Calories from Carbohydrate = 12%
  • Alcohol content = 13.1g,        Calories from Alcohol =      88%
  • Total calories = 107
In contrast a 375 ml can of standard Coca Cola has 161 calories where carbohydrate content = 39.8g, and a can of Zero Coke has only 1 calorie.

With reference to the urban myth that low carb beer is healthy, VicHealth’s executive director Todd Harper was reported as saying that:
“There are a significant number of beer drinkers who are motivated to make healthier choices ... and a high level of misunderstanding and confusion about the health qualities of low-carb beer. Unfortunately, if you are choosing low-carb beer in the belief that it is healthy then it is a mistaken belief."
You can see their low-carb beer survey fact sheet here.

Conclusion: You won’t achieve that six pack torso unless you exercise and stop drinking six packs of low carb beer.

You can find the calorific value of most foods at CalorieKing Australia.

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