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 Apple phytochemicals and their health benefits. Boyer, J., Liu, R.H. Department of Food Science and Institute of Comparative and Environmental Toxicology, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. Nutrition Journal, 2004 May 12;3:5. Since most beers are free of fruit juice, their nutritional value looks different from that of cider: Beer’s composition of yeast, hops, barley, and other grains yield a variety of different antioxidants and nutrients. Beer contains more protein and vitamin B than wine or cider, and packs a good dose of potassium, too Nutritional and health benefits of beer. Denke, M.A. Center for Human Nutrition, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, Texas. American Journal of the Medical Science 2000, Nov; 320(5):320-6. Some beers may provide 10 percent of the total daily intake of folate, which is a necessary component of red blood cell formation and growth.
The moderate consumption 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 Review of moderate alcohol consumption and reduced risk of coronary heart disease: is the effect due to beer, wine, or spirits. Rimm, E.V., Klatsky, A., Grobbee, D., et al. Department of Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, MA. British Medical Association, 1996 Mar 23;312(7033):731-6. However, the other nutrients found in beer and ciders play an important role in the healthiness of the beverages, too.
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 Plant polyphenols as dietary antioxidants in human health and disease. Pandly, K.B., Rizvi, S.I. Department of Biochemistry, University of Allahabad, India. Oxidative Medical Cell Longevity, 2009 Nov-Dec;2 (5):270-8. A study by the University of Glasgow compared two varieties of ciders using the same method of fermentation and production and found a huge range of polyphenol concentration, making it clear that the levels of polyphenols can vary significantly depending on the apple variety used Flavonoid and hydroxycinnamate profiles of english apple ciders. Marks, S.C., Mullen, W., Crizier, A. Division of Environmental and Evolutionary Biology, Institute of Biomedical and Life Sciences, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, UK. Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, 2007 Oct 17;55 (21):8723-30.
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 Xanthohumol and related prenylflavonoids from hops and beer: to your good health! Stevens, J.F., Page, J.E. Department of Chemistry and the Linus Pauling Institute, Oregon State University, OR. Phytochemistry 2004 May; 65(10):1317-30 Flavonoids as drugs at the small intestinal level. Wenzel, U. Interdisciplinary Research Center, Justus-Liebig-University of Giessen, Giessen, Germany. Current Opinions in Pharmacology. 2013, Oct 1. pii: S1471-4892(13)00172-0 Structure-Activity Analysis of Flavonoids: Direct and Indirect Antioxidant, and Antiinflammatory Potencies and Toxicities. Tsuji, P.A., Stephenson, K.K., Wade, K.L, et al. Department of Biological Sciences, Towson University, Towson, Maryland. Nutrition and Cancer 2013, Oct 2. Beer’s health benefits extend to the heart, too: Italian researchers have found that the moderate consumption of beer reduces the risk of heart disease by 31 percent.
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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