Sudsy Sports Science
Nonalcoholic beer is great, but is it an athletic performance panacea? Probably not.
Everyone loves it when science makes a bold discovery. Whether we’re talking Alexander Fleming discovering penicillin, Marie Curie discovering polonium, or a baby boy discovering his belly button, progress is thrilling!
Unfortunately, sometimes the media is so thrilled about thrilling science that they amp up the thrill on research that, frankly, isn’t that thrilling.
When an article shouts about the latest game-changing supplement, food, workout, or body-part-that-becomes-useless-the-second-you-leave-the-womb, it’s important to dig deeper. If you truly want to understand and implement that game changer, read the studies behind the article. This may sound daunting, but you can get a lot of useful information about a study simply by reading its opening summary, or “abstract.”
If a science-based article doesn’t have searchable research references, it’s probably not worth your time.
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Let’s talk nonalcoholic beer.
I really like nonalcoholic (NA) beer. In 2021, I stumbled through a Half Ironman in the desert community of Indian Wells during which the temperature climbed into the eighties. The NA beer brand Athletic Brewing Company sponsored the event. It was an absolutely pleasure to pound a couple of their IPAs post-race, then hop into the minivan and drive home without running anyone over or landing in the hoosegow with a DUI. But did I pat myself on the back for executing the perfect post-workout hydration strategy? No.
I tell you this anecdote in response to a recent article in Cycling Weekly that claims, “Skip the sports drinks, non-alcoholic beer may be as good as, or even better, for post cycling recovery.”
The article leads by referring to a Washington Post article stating NA beer is better than regular beer for recovery. Odd. I really hope the editors of Cycling Weekly know the difference between regular beer and sports drinks.
Later on, the article suggests that NA beer is better than sports drinks because it contains less sugar than beverages “like Gatorade or Powerade.” I also find this argument odd considering, after a long, hard effort (like a legit bike ride), sugar plays a positive role by replenishing glycogen stores.
Even if you are seeking less sugar because your workout wasn’t that draining, those two examples don’t really represent the wide, wide world of sport drinks. They’re hypertonic—meaning they’re specifically formulated to be high in sugar. The majority of serious sports drink nowadays are hypotonic—lower in sugar—and probably on par with the carb level of NA beer.
Polyphenols—a type of antioxidant that comes from plants—play a big part in the article’s argument for NA beer. The article refers to a 2012 study on runners showing the polyphenols in NA beer may help with inflammation and colds. This is interesting, but the study didn’t compare the beer to sports drinks.
And if we’re going to have a serious sports nutrition conversation, neither the Cycling Weekly article nor the Washington Post article mention the macronutrient elephant in the post-workout recovery room: protein. While water, carbs, and polyphenols play an important role in recovery, so does protein.
Admittedly, comparing NA beer to protein is like comparing apples to tofu, but amino acids play such an important role in recovery that it strikes me as odd to leave them out entirely.
For what it’s worth, plant-based proteins can also contain antioxidants. For example, a 2022 study funded by French plant-based ingredient supplier Roquette showed their Nutralys pea protein to have antioxidative properties. And barley protein—upcycled from the brewing process by up-and-coming ingredient supplier EverGrain—may show promise in the polyphenol department.
(Full disclosure, I’ve worked with both of these companies, so I’m partial. If this sits badly with you, please disregard that last paragraph.)
If you’re throwing around polyphenols, it’s hard to beat cranberry juice. If you’re not big on the pucker, there are sweeter juices high in other antioxidants, such as pomegranate juice. Or, if you’re worried about sugar—which, again, you don’t need to be after a workout grueling enough to require a recovery nutrition strategy—there’s always green tea or coffee.
It would be nice to see NA beer in a study next to some of these beverages. I’d also explore how NA beer might have a complementary effect when paired with protein.
Tips on reading a scientific study.
When you scrutinize claims about something that may help your performance, please read the studies!
Unfortunately, a lot of the research is published in scientific journals that most of us don’t have access to. Luckily, you can find the abstracts to most credible studies in the NIH’s searchable database, PubMed.gov. When you’re ready to move on to whole studies, ResearchGate.net is a cool resource.
On PubMed, you’ll see the title of the study, where it was published, who did it, and an abstract—a short description of the study’s hypothesis, how it was executed, and what they found.
Abstracts can be challenging given scientists like to write in a sesquipedalian way. (Sesquipedalian means you’re long-winded and use pointlessly fancy words. I like this word because, when you use it, you, too, become sesquipedalian.)
Much like a foreign language or Adult Swim cartoons, the more you read abstracts, the easier they are to understand. For starters, when you read an abstract, check out what the supposed game-changing substance is being compared to. Is it a fair match up? In the case of NA beer, it’d be neat to see it compared to established recovery tools, not just water or regular beer.
If you kick ass and want a beer—regular or unleaded—by all means go for it. Nonalcoholic brews, in particular, are a solid choice and an epic source of congratulatory stoke. I’m just not convinced that they’re a breakthrough in sports nutrition—yet.