Beer can strengthen bones, study suggests

By Jeremy Laurence

Drinking the odd pint may help prevent bone fractures, according to a US study.
Drinking the odd pint may help prevent bone fractures, according to a US study.

It may not be uppermost in the minds of pub goers eager to slake their thirst, but could aid negotiations on the domestic front. A regular pint, it turns out, helps strengthen the bones and prevent fractures in old age (so long as you don't drink too much of it and fall over).

Beer is a significant source of silicon, which is a key ingredient of the diet that helps to improve bone mineral density.

The National Institute of Health in the United States says silicon may be important for the growth and development of bones, and beer "appears to be a major contributor" to the amount of silicon in the diet.

The best beers for silicon are the pale malted ales and lagers. Dark bitters and stouts contain lower levels because they are made with roasted barley, which has lower silicon content. Wheat contains less silicon than barley, so wheat beers are poorer sources of silicon.

Previous studies have suggested that a regular pint or two may help to prevent the bone-thinning disease osteoporosis, which affects an estimated 3 million people in the UK, 200,000 of whom suffer fractures each year as a result.

One in three women and one in 12 men over 50 will be affected over their lifetime.

Researchers from the Department of Food Science at the University of California have studied 100 commercial beers and found their silicon content ranged from 6.4 milligrams per litre to 56.5 mg/l. Paler beers have more silicon than darker ones because less heat is used in the malting process.

Charles Bamforth, who led the study published in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, said: "Beer containing high levels of malted barley and hops are richest in silicon. It is the husk of the barley that is rich in this element. While most remains during brewing, significant quantities are none the less extracted into wort and survive into beer."

The finding does add to the confusion over the benefits and drawbacks of alcohol. A pint on the way home from work may set you up for the evening n but will it improve your chances of a lengthy and healthy life?

The bone-strengthening properties of beer may now be added to its heart protective role - a daily pint is known to cut the risk of heart disease by around 40 per cent in middle-aged men. Against that, however, moderate drinking increases the risk of bowel cancer by 10 per cent. In women it also increases the risk of breast cancer by 7 per cent.

Weighing up the risks is tricky, but what all the studies agree on is that people who drink some alcohol live longer than those who drink nothing, teetotallers.

Of the latest findings, Claire Bowring, of the National Osteoporosis Society, said: "The Society welcomes measures to improve bone health [but] we do not recommend anyone increases their alcohol consumption on the basis of these studies.

"While low quantities of alcohol may appear to have bone density benefits, higher intakes have been shown to decrease bone strength, with an alcohol intake of more than 2 units per day actually increasing the risk of breaking a bone. There are also many other health concerns linked with alcohol which cannot be ignored."

Catherine Collins, a dietician at St George's Healthcare NHS Trust, said: "Beer drinking is not really relevant in terms of bone health. Silica may well contribute to bone health but in a minor way: it is not significant compared with nutrients that we know are essential for bone health and are potentially deficient in the UK diet - such as calcium and vitamin D."

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