Science - January 29, 2014

There are wine types and there are beer types

Rob Ramaker

The fact that Dutch wine drinkers are healthier on average than beer drinkers is nothing to do with their chosen beverage itself: they are just different groups of people.

This conclusion was reached by postdoc Dieuwertje Sluik from a nutrition survey of more than 2000 Dutch citizens. She published an article about it in the January issue of the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

American conservatives knew this already: wine drinkers and beer drinkers are different types of people. That is why during their campaigns they berate wine-sipping progressives, who simply do not understand the problems facing a hardworking Joe Sixpack. Dutch beer and wine drinkers are different too, demonstrates Sluik, who works at the Human Nutrition chair group.

Beer drinkers are usually younger, and more often men, smokers and less highly educated. Her study also shows that wine drinkers tend to stick better to the guidelines for a healthy diet. They eat more vegetables and less fatty and sugary food. But when Sluik corrected her data for the differences in age, sex, BMI, education level and smoking and exercise behaviour, the differences almost all disappeared. So it is not the choice of alcoholic beverage in itself that predicts the healthy behaviour. At the most, the only thing a preference for wine might say about you is that you belong to a certain class.

Follow-up research

Sluik used data from the Dutch Food consumption survey by the RIVM. For this survey more than 2000 people twice listed everything they had eaten and drunk over the last 24 hours. They also gave some personal information but no medical information about their health. If people got more than 70 percent of their alcohol from beer or wine, they counted as beer or wine drinkers.

But the researchers are reserving judgement. They are the first to do research on wine and beer drinkers using data about both diet and personal characteristics such as level of education. They would also prefer to have access to hard data about health: how many heart attacks or cancer cases there are among the survey population, for instance. This should be done in a European-wide follow-up study, with input from Wageningen UR. This would include countries in eastern and southern Europe, where drinking preferences are completely different.

Eventually the researchers hope to be able to give clear advice on alcohol consumption. Often that is very difficult, says Edith Feskens, personal professor at Human Nutrition and Sluik’s supervisor. ‘For smoking anything above zero is too much. For alcohol, the optimum for cardiovascular disease and for overall risk of death is one glass a day for women and two for men.’ But nutritionists do not want to encourage people to start drinking. Feskens: ‘So there is a lot of ambivalence around alcohol.’

The study was funded by a European Foundation for Alcohol Research, an initiative by several alcohol producers. Feskens guarantees that they had no influence on the content or the publication of the article.