Malt beverages, including some beers and liquors, are sometimes touted as nutritious. But can they also cause high blood pressure and other dangerous conditions? Does drinking in moderation change the equation? Here's what you should know.
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What's a Malted Beverage?
According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), a malt beverage is a fermented drink made with malted barley and hops. Barley is a grain, while hops is a flower with a bitter flavor boost. Not all beers are malted beverages as they may instead use other grains in place of barley, but many beers are malted.
When many people think of malt beverages, what comes to mind is malt liquor — the popular and inexpensive 40-ounce, high-alcohol lager beer. According to the University of Minnesota Alcohol Epidemiology Program, malt liquor usually has a higher alcohol content (6 to 10 percent) than the average beer.
And according to the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University, a standard alcoholic drink has about 14 grams of alcohol, which is found in 12 ounces of beer (5 percent alcohol) but in only 8.5 ounces of malt liquor (9 percent alcohol), due to its higher alcohol content.
But there are also non-alcoholic malted drinks, which are sometimes touted as being healthy. Most of the nutrients in malt beverages stem from carbs — they are low in fat, salt, protein and fiber — and not a significant source of most vitamins and minerals, with the exception of niacin, selenium, phosphorus, magnesium and a few B vitamins, according to the USDA. Should you include them as part of a nutritious diet though? Probably not.
"Malted beverages may have certain benefits, including being a source of certain vitamins, although they should not be used as a replacement for primary sources of nutrition," says Scott Krakower, DO, a psychiatrist at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, New York, and a substance abuse treatment expert specializing in teens and young adults.
Read more: The Benefits of Malt Extract Beverages
Malt Beverages and Blood Pressure
It makes sense that malt beverages shouldn't be the focus of your diet, but does that mean they can cause health problems? That depends.
"Malted beverages can cause increases in blood pressure, especially those with alcoholic content," Dr. Krakower says. "This may depend on the frequency of use. Regular or binge drinkers of alcoholic beverages can show signs of elevated blood pressure and other cardiac conditions."
It's important to make a distinction, however, between excessive alcohol consumption and moderate alcohol consumption, the latter of which observational studies have associated with some important health benefits. Those include blood pressure-related benefits. According to the Cleveland Clinic, drinking in moderation can lower blood pressure by 2 to 4 millimeters of mercury.
Moreover, consuming light to moderate amounts of alcohol (one drink a day for women and one to two drinks a day for men) decreases the risks for total mortality, congestive heart failure, coronary artery disease, diabetes and stroke, according to a March 2014 review in Mayo Clinic Proceedings.
The Linus Pauling Institute describes the relationship between drinking alcohol and mortality as "J-shaped." In other words, when looking at a graph with alcohol abstinence on the left and heavy drinking on the right, you can see the rapid increase in potentially fatal health problems the more a person drinks.
Read more: Bad Effects of Beer
How Much to Drink
Due to the fact that alcohol consumption can be either beneficial or detrimental, the Institute recommends that, in consultation with your doctor, you determine how much or if you should drink based on a combination of scientific evidence and individual factors.
In general, the Cleveland Clinic and many other experts recommend that, to realize health benefits, men consume no more than two drinks a day while women should only consume one drink a day.
As for non-alcoholic malt beverages, Dr. Krakower says that while they are not directly correlated to high blood pressure, "people should be mindful of their caloric and carbohydrate intake, as excessive consumption may result in unwanted weight gain and other medical comorbidities."
- Scott Krakower, DO, teen and adolescent psychiatrist, assistant unit chief, Zucker Hillside Hospital, Glen Oaks, New York
- Mayo Clinic Proceedings: “Alcohol and Cardiovascular Health: The Dose Makes the Poison…or the Remedy”
- Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau: “Which Alcohol Beverages Require Formula Approval?”
- University of Minnesota Alcohol Epidemiology Program: “Malt Liquor and Fortified Wine”
- Oregon State University Linus Pauling Institute: “Alcoholic Beverages”
- USDA: “Malt Beverage Includes Non-Alcoholic Beer”
- Cleveland Clinic: “High Blood Pressure: Talking to Your Medical Provider”