Beer and Bone Study a Boon for Microbrews?

Earlier this week, researchers at the University of California, Davis, published a study showing that beer contains a large amount of dietary silicon. The mineral, which previous studies have linked to bone health, is especially abundant in IPAs and ales, beers that are typically associated with small-scale breweries.The UC Davis study, which was conducted by researchers Charles Bamforth and Troy Casey, measured the silicon content in 100 commercially-available beers. Critics in the medical establishment were quick to attack the study, noting that previous research has linked alcohol consumption to a host of medical problems, including fractures, which are more likely to occur when one is inebriated. But an earlier study, which was published in the British Journal of Nutrition, did establish a relationship between beer consumption and dietary silicon, so there is reason to believe there is a connection.

Bamforth and Casey's study demonstrates that the type of beer one drinks has a significant impact upon the amount of silicon in one's diet. India Pale Ales (IPAs) top the silicon list at 41.2 parts per million (ppm), while ales in general average 32.8 ppm. Lagers, on the other hand, offer a comparatively anemic 23.8 ppm, while nonalcoholic beer averages 16.3 ppm.

Karl Knoop, operations manager at Brooklyn Brewery offers an interesting explanation for this variation in silicon content: "If I was going to hypothesize, I would guess that silica, which is found in grain husks, could be responsible." Knoop notes that ales have a higher alcohol content, which means that they contain more grain, and thus more husks.

And therein lies the irony of this study. Charles Bamforth is the Anheuser Busch endowed professor of brewing science at UC Davis, a position that some night say places his scientific credibility in doubt. But Anheuser Busch Inbev (BUD), the company that butters Bamforth's bread, generally makes lagers and pilsners, which are lower on the silicon scale. In fact, of the dozens of brands that Inbev produces, only a small handful -- Labatt 50, Alexander Keith, Bass, Hoegaarden, Michelob and Kokanee -- are poised to be big winners in this study.

If researchers establish a firm link between beer and bone density, the real winners will be microbreweries like Brooklyn Brewery, which has a wide range of ales. Regarding the relationship between small brewers and silica-rich beers, Knoop points out that there are several factors that favor smaller manufacturers in this regard. For example, gargantuan brewers like Budweiser tend to rely heavily on corn and rice, which are cheap, but have less silica than wheat and barley.

While the UC Davis study is far from conclusive on the whole issue, it opens several tantalizing avenues for research, and given the popularity of beer among America's graduate students, it seems likely that more studies will follow. After all, while there are many potential sources for dietary silicon, few are as refreshing -- or as enjoyable to explore -- as a nice, tall glass of ale!
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