Beer has long held the place of America’s most beloved alcoholic beverage. But for an increasing number of Americans, hard apple cider is becoming the drink of choice. So what’s so special about the drink’s sweet composition and potential health benefits, and how do they compare to the benefits of beer? We dove into the bottle to find out.
What’s the Deal?
A staple in Britain before the Norman invasion, hard cider is now consumed across the globe (though the British continue to consume nearly half of all cider produced worldwide). Cider’s popularity in the United States waned after the 19th century introduction of German lagers, and declined further after Prohibition, but recently cider is making a comeback stateside. From festivals such as Pour the Core and New York Cider Week, to the growth of domestic brands like Boston Beer Company’s popular Angry Orchard, the US cider market is predicted to grow 65 percent between 2011 and 2016. The resurgence of cider prompts many to compare the beverage’s composition and potential health benefits to those of beer — especially as it’s increasingly popular as a gluten-free option for beer lovers who, well, can’t drink beer. But in terms of health benefits (and flavor) each drink is unique and it can vary greatly from bottle to bottle. Here’s how they’re different:
Hard cider and beer differ dramatically in their composition. Hard cider is made from a combination of yeast and apples — a superfood that provides vitamin C and antioxidants to protect the heart and reduce the risk of diabetes and asthma
The moderateconsumption of alcohol (that’s one drink per day for women, and two for men) does have a number of potential health boons. Scientists have studied the health benefits of alcoholic beverages such as beer, wine, and spirits since the turn of the century for their ability to lower the risk of heart disease, cognitive decline, and dementia
One study examining the antioxidant content of fruit juices, hard cider, and teas concluded that hard cider has the potential to contain as many antioxidants as wine. (However, within the study, the servings of cider evaluated were inexplicably larger than other drinks being tested, which may account for the large range of antioxidants attributed to hard cider.) These antioxidants (polyphenols, to be exact) have been linked to protecting against certain types of cancers, cardiovascular diseases, and neurodegenerative diseases
In the beer-making process, naturally occurring polyphenols (usually found in hops and malt) are often removed by the brewer as they can cause beer to appear cloudy. This usually decreases the total polyphenol content, which means the astringency (the puckering feeling) found in ciders and red wines, is noticeably absent from beer. Compared to cider, beer falls behind in polyphenol concentration.However, a study by Oregon State University found that hops often contain flavonoids (a type of polyphenol compound), which provide antioxidant protection to cells
The amount of sugar per bottle is a major difference between beer and hard cider. Beer is sugar-free, and sugar is typically only added in small quantities by brewers to balance sourness. Cider, however, can be quite high in sugar. Of the most popular brands of hard cider stateside there is a wide range of sugar content — ranging from Crispin’s 15g (three teaspoons) of sugar per serving, to Angry Orchard-Crisp Apple’s 23 grams of sugar (7 teaspoons of sugar). The varying sugar content of hard cider is a result of the fermentation process: Sweeter ciders are slowly fermented and repeatedly racked (moved to new containers) to strain the yeast that feeds on the cider’s natural sugars. Dryer ciders (meaning they contain less sugar) allow the yeast to consume the majority of cider’s natural sugars and result in a less sweet drink with a higher alcohol content (now we’re talkin’). Comparatively, the calories found in a bottle of beer or hard cider remain pretty similar, but ciders are typically higher in carbohydrates due to the higher levels of sugar. Few varieties have “lite” options, so on average ciders will be slightly higher in calories and carbohydrates.
Your Action Plan
When weighing your healthier happy hour options, it’s really a tossup between beer and hard cider. The antioxidant content of cider varies by apple type, and if a polyphenol-poor variety is used, you’ll ultimately need to drink more to reap its potential health benefits (spoiler alert: the extra calories and inevitable hangover are not worth the dose of antioxidants). Although beer is low in polyphenols, its nutritional value is bolstered by high levels of vitamin B, potassium, and folate.
Both beer and cider are calorie-rich drinks, with respectively high levels of carbohydrates. For any alcoholic drink to really be healthy, moderation is the name of the game. One bottle of a healthier beer, a lower-sugar cider, or a glass of wine can provide a good dose of antioxidants — so learn to savor just one drink.
If beer and wine aren’t your thing, consider a calorie-cutting cocktail from mojitos to lemondrops, or consult the Greatist guide, How to Choose the Healthiest, Beer, Wine, and Cocktails.
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