Beer is the most widely consumed alcoholic drink in the world and its
history dates back to around 4000BC. This original beer, however, was
rather flat and would have tasted quite different; hops weren't used in
beer making until the 8th century. In New Zealand, beer has been part of
our history since the arrival of Captain Cook, who is credited with
brewing beer here in the 1770s.
Many people will attest to the almost 'medicinal' qualities of a cold
beer at the end of a day's work and in fact, many studies have shown
that moderate drinking is good for us. Specific studies on moderate beer
drinkers show they have a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease
compared to non-drinkers or heavy drinkers. Alcohol of any kind
increases our HDL (good) cholesterol and reduces blood clotting. Some
studies have also found moderate alcohol consumption to be associated
with a reduced risk of both type 2 diabetes and dementia; and there are
animal studies suggesting that beer consumption (thanks to compounds in
the hops) may help slow postmenopausal bone loss in women.
Like any good news, we've warmed to the studies showing that drinking
in moderation is 'healthy', but some researchers warn that the positive
benefits linked to alcohol consumption may be overstated. At the end of
the day, no medical professional will encourage you to start drinking
if you don't already; as we are all aware, the downsides of heavier
drinking can be significant.
How much is okay?
The key, as it seems with a lot of the food and drink we especially
like, is moderation. For women that means up to two standard drinks a
day and for men up to three (the difference is not just because men are
generally bigger; men metabolise alcohol more effectively than women).
Once you start drinking more than moderately, things don't look so good.
Alcohol, of any variety, increases blood pressure so higher amounts are
not going to be good for overall heart health.
So the trick is to understand what a 'standard drink' is. It's based
on the amount of alcohol in the drink, so the lower the alcohol content
of your beer, the fewer standard drinks it contains.
Quite a few beers tell you on the label how many standard drinks the
can or bottle contains. You can see in our sample that a full-strength
beer (usually 4-5% alcohol by volume) accounts for around 1-1.3 standard
drinks in a 330ml bottle, whereas a 1.0% alcohol beer is only 0.3
Kilojoules in beer
To understand the claims made about beer you need to understand where
the kilojoules come from. You can forget fat: beer barely has any; less
than 1%. And protein accounts for only 3-4% of the kilojoules. That
leaves carbohydrate and alcohol. In standard beers, alcohol is the
You can see from the table below that the alcohol and carbohydrate
content of different beers varies considerably. You'll also notice that
if strong ale is your tipple, you're probably drinking a beer high in
both alcohol and carbs, thus very high in kilojoules. Note that these
are 'standard' products; what you're actually drinking could be quite
For people who are not keen on a low-alcohol beer, but who do want
fewer kilojoules, some manufacturers now produce a low-carb option.
While the low-carb beers will have nutrition information on the
packaging, most beers don't, so it can be difficult to make comparisons.
And for people choosing a low-alcohol beer, there is still no guarantee
it's a lower kilojoule choice than a higher-alcohol beer, as the
carbohydrate content may be higher to add to the flavour.
kJ in 330ml
Std draught and lager
What does 'light' mean?
A beer described as 'light' will be less than 3% alcohol by volume,
but to be described as 'low-alcohol' a beer must be less than 1.15%
alcohol. In our sample, Clausthaler (with 0.5% alcohol) and Mac's Light
(at 1.0% alcohol) are both described as 'low-alcohol' on the packaging.
The other light beer was Amstel Light (with 2.5% alcohol).
When comparing the kilojoule content of these three beers, you can
see the trade-off between kilojoules in alcohol and kilojoules in
carbohydrate. Mac's Light has the lowest kilojoule content as it's lower
in both, whereas the other two have a similar kilojoule content:
Clausthaler is higher in carbohydrate and lower in alcohol; and Amstel
Light is higher in alcohol but lower in carbs.
What is low-carb?
330ml of a standard draught or lager beer contains around 7g of
carbohydrate, but there is wide variation. Currently there's no
definition of what a low-carb beer is (although there is likely to be in
the future). Amongst the beers we sampled that highlighted 'low-carb'
or 'lower-carb', the carbohydrate content in a 330ml serve varied from
3.6g in Pure Blond to 4.0g in Haagen (low-carb), and up to 5.3g in
Amstel Premium and 5.4g in Mac's Spring Tide ('lower-carb'). All of
these beers had the standard alcohol content of between 4 and 5%, so
offer lower kilojoules without lowering the alcohol.