Health

Are Session Beers Healthier for You?

In a new study, people drank about 20 percent more beer and wine when it was labelled “super low.”
Dick Patrick Studios/Getty Images

Like almost every long-standing industry, beer makers are trying to understand the unique consumption habits of millennials. For some of the largest manufacturers, that has meant an emphasis on “light” beers lower in alcohol content and calories, which seem to be more popular for the health-conscious generation. (For the purposes of this story, we are defining low-alcohol beers generally—including so-called "session" beers—as "light." More on that in a moment.)

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Anheuser-Busch InBev, the Belgium-based juggernaut, has forecasted that beer of 3.5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) and lower will grow from a small sliver of its sales to 20 percent by 2025. In the UK particularly, the sale of low-alcohol drinks increased by 20.5 percent from July 2016 to July 2017, according to a Nielsen review.

Light beers tend to be lighter in calories because many of the calories in beers are derived from alcohol content, which the watering-down process reduces. They also tend to have fewer carbs. A healthier-seeming line of products may help brewers break through a stall in global beer sales, a trend that some have associated with consumers' fitness concerns. (Brewers are also upping their investment in gluten-free and vegan beers.)

But the health benefits of light beer touted by its makers—in terms of lower caloric intake and decreased intoxication—might be diminished by a self-licensing effect that makes people think they should reward themselves by drinking more. Light beer marketing also encourages people to drink on additional occasions, according to a new series of studies from the University of Cambridge.

“[D]rinkers are usually poor at correctly judging the content of their drinks, be it in terms of units of alcohol, calories, etc.,” says Milica Vasiljevic, a senior research associate at Cambridge and lead author of the studies. “For example, in the absence of verbal descriptors of alcohol strength, drinkers tend to underestimate the alcohol units contained in their drinks, reflected in the pouring of larger servings. Similar paradoxical effects have been found in relation to calorie labelling on alcohol containers.”

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What Is a Light Beer?

What constitutes a “light” beer tends to be a marketing decision. There is no universal standard of alcohol by volume for the term.

To most health professionals who measure alcohol consumption, an “average” beer has an ABV of 4.5 percent. Many popular light beers have ABV levels just south of that level: Corona Light is 4.1 percent ABV. Miller Lite, Coors Light and most kinds of Bud Light have ABV rates of 4.2 percent. Non-“light” versions of these brands have ABVs not even a percentage point higher. (Oddly, Bud Light Platinum has an ABV of 6 percent while old-school Budweiser has a lower ABV rate of 5.)

For the consumer who really wants a light beer, brands have introduced products like Miller Genuine Draft 64 and Bud Select 55, both named for their calorie count, and carrying ABVs of 3 and 2.4 percent, respectively.

For craft breweries and beer snobs, there are also what are colloquially known as “session beers." These are flavorful varieties of about 4- or 5-percent ABV, which are often marketed as being perfect for hours-long events like music festivals, camping trips, and tailgating parties.

“It’s a beer where you can drink multiple in one sitting and still be able to do things,” says Dave Engbers, co-founder and president of Michigan-based Founders Brewing Company, which has found remarkable success with its All Day IPA, which has an ABV of 4.5 percent. Introduced in 2012, it’s now the third best-selling IPA in the US.

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Like many small breweries, Founders, established in 1997, had been catering to beer snobs. “There was a time when everything had be barrel-aged and bourbon-infused and use these crazy adjunct [ingredients],” Engbers says. Some of their products had staggering alcohol levels: Their "Dirty Bastard" beer had an ABV of 8.5 percent, and their current offering from the “bastard” line—Backwoods Bastard—clocks in at 11 percent.

The brewery concocted All Day IPA as a potential high-volume seller. “Why not create a beer that has everything people expect from Founders that’s lower in alcohol?” Engbers says. He adds that it’s “for people with an adventurous lifestyle, for people who enjoy the outdoors.” That’s one reason it’s the first Founders product sold in aluminum cans: to be taken fishing or hiking.

The name says it all: Instead of as a celebration treat or a nightcap, All Day IPA is meant to be enjoyed, well, all day—and has an ABV level low enough to allow it. The message is reinforced by the packaging: an illustration of a station wagon with a canoe tied to the top traveling down a country road. The slogan on a box of them reads: “Make all day last even longer.”

Why Light Beers Might Not Be Better for You

“The UK has been doused with low-alcohol content, which is causing a lot of binge-drinking on weekends,” says Thomas Babor, head of the Department of Community Medicine and Health Care at the University of Connecticut and former director of its Alcohol Research Center.

Babor says that light beer is sold at cost in some British supermarkets to get people in the doors. This causes them to stock up and, because the low-alcohol content makes drinking more seem safer, people overdo it. Young women are particularly susceptible to this message, he adds.

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Because of the growing popularity of light beers and wines, the UK's Department of Health is considering stricter labeling laws. Currently, only four terms are regulated by law: “low alcohol” (1.2 percent ABV or below), “de-alcoholised” (0.5 percent or lower), “alcohol free” (0.05 percent or lower) and “non-alcoholic” (a term reserved for alcohol-less communion or sacramental wine). The industry hence uses loosely defined, unregulated terms like “light,” “low,” “extra low,” “super low,” and “extra light” for wines and beers outside those measures.

Before reforming the system, the Department commissioned the studies from Behaviour and Health Research Unit at the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Public Health to investigate how perceptions of low-alcohol content affects drinking behavior.


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The Cambridge researchers found that the sole act of labeling drinks as lower in strength increases the amount consumed. And that might be what marketers want: In a related study, they found that light wines and beers appeared not to be marketed as substitutes for the harder stuff, but as ones that can be consumed on additional occasions.

In one study, subjects were recruited by a marketing research firm to test a supposedly new set of alcoholic products. The sample pool of 264 Britons were picked to represent the general population of the UK. They entered a “bar lab,” described in the study as “a purpose-built testing room resembling a typical pub environment, featuring a 4.5[-meter] bar, optics, bar taps, bottles, a slot machine, bar stools, and appropriate wall hangings.”

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The subjects were divided into three groups. Each was presented with beer and wine with differing labels. One group of participants taste-tested drinks labeled “super low” in alcohol content labeled as 4 percent ABV for wine and 1 percent for beer. For the second group, the drinks were labelled “low,” 8 percent ABV for wine and 3 for beer. For the third, the drinks were not labeled with word indicators but displayed the strengths of 12.9-percent ABV for wine and 4.2 for beer. (The researchers considered these strengths average.)

People drank about 20 percent more beer and wine when it was labelled “super low”—even though the strengths of the wine and beer was actually the same in all three groups. (There wasn’t a marked difference between the quantity consumed when groups were presented with “low”-alcohol beer and wine and drinks with no labels indicating alcohol strength.)

“Only the labels they were given varied,” Vasiljevic says. “This means that we could isolate the effects of labelling.” The “super low” beer and wine drinkers gave themselves license to drink more, even though the actual potency of each drink was the same in all groups, in an effect study authors noted was similar in studies of light cigarettes and low-fat foods.

In another study, Vasiljevic and her coauthors looked at how low-strength drinks were sold to the public. They gathered marketing text and promotional images from the websites of the four UK supermarket chains and the makers of the products. Four themes reoccurred in promotional literature for light alcohol.

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The first was suggested occasions for consumption; lunchtime and recreational sports were popular. Some text read: “Perfect option for every taste and occasion,” “For those occasions when you need to smarten up a little,” and “For all your trendy patio parties, picnic classics and the good old-fashioned night in with your pals.”

You may notice similarities to Founder’s imagery—for instance, road trips and outdoor excursions. “It is true we want people to enjoy beer when they are out and to drink more beer,” Engbers says. He adds that All Day IPA is “low in alcohol for a reason” and “if it was 16-percent alcohol you shouldn’t drink it like that.”

The second theme was health-related imagery (like logos of fruit) and associations (like messages about the calorie count). The third was the low alcohol content, and the fourth was taste.

Only the last theme—taste—was found often in marketing materials for regular-strength beer as well. Makers of regular-strength beers were not suggesting it as a part of lunch or a “perfect option for every taste and occasion.” The researchers concluded that the low-strength products “appear to be marketed not as substitutes for higher-strength products but as ones that can be consumed on additional occasions with an added implication of healthiness.”

Anheuser-Busch InBev, whose brands’ marketing content was frequently but not exclusively cited in the study, did not return Tonic’s request for comment.

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“[T]he pattern of results obtained in our present study suggests that labelling wines and beers as lower in alcohol strength may lead to higher consumption,” Vasiljevic says. If light beer encourages consumers to drink beer at additional times and their self-licensing encourages them to drink more of it, its increased popularity might not be much a benefit to individual or public health.

“Psychologically speaking, it’s easy to overdo it when drinking throughout the day,” says Sal Raichbach, an addiction specialist at the Ambrosia Treatment Center in Riviera Beach, Florida. “Since your [blood-alcohol content] isn’t increasing as fast as when you are doing shots at the bar, you might not feel as drunk, but your body is still doing the same amount of work processing that alcohol.”

The Social Uses of Light Beer

During World War I, the British government rationed beer to soldiers. Those on the munitions manufacturing line were allotted four-hour periods in which to imbibe, 11 am to 3 pm, or 7 pm to 11 pm. Because of the delicacy of their work, the British governments gave them watered down beer with ABV of 3 to 4 percent.

Light beer has long been used by its makers as a remedy for societal concerns, says UConn's Babor. “These trends tend to be a cyclical pattern,” he says.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the alcohol industry faced backlash due to increased awareness of drunk driving and the rise of groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Babor says. They started advertising light beer more frequently as a token of corporate responsibility.

More recently, soccer stadiums in Europe and Latin America have banned or restricted alcohol sales to curtail fan debauchery, and breweries have responded by pushing light beer in sports venues to contain the problem, Babor says.

He suggests being suspicious of any brewery that seems too keen about improving your health or wellbeing in its advertising pitch. “The alcohol industry, from small breweries to large corporations, is interested in one thing,” he says, “selling its product and selling more of it.”

Engbers, of Founders Brewing Co., doesn’t disagree with that sentiment. He says the government and individuals are responsible “for who can drink beer and how much is too much.” As for him: “I’m in the beer industry," he says, "and we do want people to drink more beer and we want them to drink it more responsibly.”

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