Feb. 8, 2010 -- For beer drinkers, a new study that suggests beer is a significant source of a mineral key to maintaining bone density may sound too good to be true.
That may well be, say health experts who overwhelmingly agree the the connection may be more wishful thinking than solid science.
But that may not stop many brew lovers from viewing the new research as an excuse to order another round. The study of 100 commercial beers in the February issue of the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture by Charles Bamforth and Troy Casey of the University of California Davis examined the silicon content that results from different ingredients and brewing processes.
"Silicon impacts bone mineral density in humans, and supplementing silicon in the diets of osteoporitic women increased bone mineral density," the authors wrote. Thus, they surmise, silicon-rich beer may also help to strengthen bones.
Although a press release issued with the study prominently mentioned the link between silicon and bone health, the study itself did not look at bone mineral density or analyze any patient data, according to several researchers contacted by MedPage Today and ABC News.
Also, bananas and some grains have high levels of silicon, but for many, beer appears to be the richest source.
The authors wrote that they explored the silicon content in beer because the popular beverage has been identified as one of the richest potential sources of dietary silicon in the Western diet. The average intake is 20 to 50 mg/day.
The beers sampled contained an average of 29.4 mg/L of silicon. Beers made from a barley-based grist, as opposed to wheat-based beers, and brews containing more hops had the highest silicon levels.
The beer type with the overall highest silicon level was India Pale Ale, with an average of 41.2 mg/L. Other ales came in second with 32.8 mg/L.
Nonalcoholic beers, light lagers, and wheat beers had the least silicon.
In the study, the authors concluded that "beer is a substantial source of silicon in the diet" and that "beers containing high levels of malted barley and hops are richest in silicon," but they did not attempt to establish a link between beer drinking and bone health.
Experts contacted for comment on the study also cautioned the public against establishing any such connection.
"To conclude any bone health benefits from this study would require a great leap," said Dr. Tim Byers, deputy director of the University of Colorado Cancer Center in Aurora.
Drink to Your Health? Not So Fast
Still, it is not the first piece of research to link beer consumption with positive health effects. Last March, a separate study out of Tufts University in Boston suggested that among older men, those who enjoyed one or two glasses of beer a day, seemed to have stronger bones than their non-drinking counterparts -- although heavy drinking seemed to lead to weaker bones. In December, a team of German researchers suggested that an ingredient in beer may help men ward off prostate cancer.
Previously, a 2004 cross-sectional study in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research found a significant association between greater dietary silicon intake, including that from beer, and higher bone mineral density in the hip in men and premenopausal women.
The researchers concluded: "These findings suggest that higher dietary silicon intake in men and younger women may have salutary effects on skeletal health, especially cortical bone health, that have not been previously recognized."
Another study by the same group published last year in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that moderate consumption of alcohol, including beer, wine, and liquor, was associated with higher bone mineral density in men and postmenopausal women.
But balance these studies against the weight of research suggesting that too much alcohol consumption can lead to a host of negative health effects – including liver disease and some types of cancer – and it is easy to see why the findings of these studies are so counterintuitive.
In fact, Dr. Walter Willett, chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard University School of Public Health in Boston, said not only that "There is presently no evidence that drinking any form of alcoholic beverage leads to stronger bones," but he also said that research by he and his colleagues "has shown that alcohol consumption increases risk of fracture, probably by increasing the risk of falls."
And Dr. Stephen Richardson, an endocrinologist at New York University's Langone Medical Center, noted that "alcohol consumption is a risk factor for osteoporosis.
"I would not tell people to drink more beer."
Beer No Bone Saver, Experts Say
So considering the increased fracture risk and the various other problems associated with drinking too much alcohol, experts agree that guzzling beer is not strategy for improving bone health.
"In the absence of bone density values or preferably fracture incidence, it would be premature to tout beer as a preventative or treatment," Richardson said.
Dr. David Katz, director and co-founder of the Yale Prevention Research Center in New Haven, Conn., agreed.
"This is not a reason to drink beer," he said. "This is simply a bit of good news for those who do drink beer already -- yours truly among them."