Few drinks (save tea or coffee) divide the world so spectacularly as beer or wine. There’s no accounting for taste, of course – but there are subtle differences in the way they affect your body and determine your health. Is one more fattening than another? How do their heart benefits compare? And which gives the worse hangover?
BBC Future has combed through the data to bust some of the myths surrounding two of the world’s favourite drinks.
Which gets you drunk more quickly?
A pint of lager and a medium glass of wine both contain around the same alcohol content – two or three British units (16-24g). However, your descent into inebriation relies on that alcohol passing into your blood stream – and the speed at which this happens can depend on the type of drink.
The speed at which you get inebriated can depend on the type of drink
Mack Mitchell at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Centre recently asked a group of 15 men to imbibe different drinks on different days. He made sure that the alcohol content was precisely matched to their body weight – and ensured they drank the alcohol at precisely the same rate, over a 20 minute period. Unsurprisingly, spirits entered the blood stream quickest, leading to the highest peak in blood alcohol content – followed by wine (reaching a peak 54 minutes after drinking) and then beer (which peaked 62 minutes after the drink was finished). In other words, a glass of wine will go to your head more quickly than a pint of beer.
Verdict: Beer is less likely to lead to embarrassment
Which gives you the biggest paunch?
At face value, the myth of the beer belly should be true. Alcohol itself contains calories, not to mention all the sugars that make our favourite drinks so tasty. And at around 180 calories, a pint of beer has 50% more energy content than a small glass of wine – enough to cause you to pile on the pounds.
For moderate drinkers, however, the differences seem to be minimal. A recent review of studies concluded that neither wine nor beer drinkers tend to put on weight over the short-term. The authors noted, however, that the longest study had lasted just 10 weeks. The studies could have missed minor weight gain – and even 1kg (2.2lbs) over that period would eventually add up to a beer belly weighing 25kg (55lbs) over five years. That’s the equivalent to carrying 10 full-term babies.
(On the plus side, the commonly held view that beer may cause men to develop breasts is almost certainly an unfounded myth.)
Verdict: Slim differences, but wine may have the edge
Which gives the worst hangover?
Despite their best efforts, scientists have yet to conquer the drinker’s most formidable foe: the hangover. We don’t even fully understand what causes it. Dehydration is likely to be an important factor (alcohol makes us pee more liquid than we take in) but it may also be caused by some of the byproducts of fermentation. Called congeners, these organic molecules give each drink its unique flavour and aroma, but they may also be toxic to the body, resulting in the throbbing head and nausea that usually follows a night of excess.
In general, darker drinks are thought to contain more congeners. In fact, the evidence so far is ambiguous. Although certain dark spirits like bourbon do seem to produce a worse hangover than crystal clear vodka, different types of beer and wine so far seem to be equal. So provided you haven’t turned to the hard stuff, you can’t blame your choice of drink for your agony.
Verdict: Too ambiguous to call
Which is better (or worse) for my health?
We are often told that a glass of wine a day could help rejuvenate the body, reducing our risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. This life-giving sustenance is thought to come from “polyphenols” (found especially in red wine) that soothe inflammation and mop up damaging chemicals in the body.
If drank in moderation, a glass a day really may keep the doctor away
Beer is conspicuously absent from these health bulletins, but it too contains a fair share of polyphenols, and seems to offer modest benefits, akin to white wine but less than red wine. Clearly, none of this gives you a free pass to binge drink, but if drank in moderation, a glass a day really may keep the doctor away.
Verdict: Red wine wins hands down, but beer may be better than no drink at all
Overall verdict: When it comes to health benefits, wine edges it as the best medicine. However, beer drinkers can at least respond that their drink has the more illustrious history. In fact, some anthropologists have suggested that our taste for beer might have planted the seeds of agriculture, and therefore civilisation itself. That’s something to contemplate the next time you’re waiting at the bar.