By Chris Carmichael,
Founder and Head Coach of CTS
For a long time I have advised athletes to cut back on or stop consuming alcohol in order to remove a barrier to improved performance. At the same time, I have to admit that I find the first slug of an ice-cold beer at the end of a hot day outdoors to be exquisite. Now that craft brewers have dramatically improved the quality of non-alcoholic beer, I can enjoy that experience once again. I’m not alone, and although it represents a tiny percentage of the overall beer market, this niche category is growing rapidly, particularly among athletes. Non-alcoholic beer is even being promoted as a sports drink or post-workout recovery drink, but how does it stack up against more traditional sports nutrition products?
Why Non-Alcoholic Beer is Even Compared to Sports Drinks
There are some similarities between the sports drink you often put in your water bottles and what’s in a can of non-alcoholic beer. The most commonly referred to similarity is that they’re both isotonic, meaning the osmolality of the fluid you’re drinking is equal to that of your blood. Osmolality refers to the concentration of a solution in terms of osmoles of solutes (carbohydrate, salt, etc. in this case) per kilogram of solvent (water). Drinks that are hypotonic have lower osmolality than blood (think less concentrated, more dilute), whereas drinks that are hypertonic have higher osmolality than blood (think more concentrated).
Water moves through a membrane (like your intestinal wall) from an area of low osmolality to an area of high osmolality. So, if you want a drink to quickly increase the amount of water in your bloodstream, you want the drink to be isotonic or hypotonic. How do different drinks compare with the osmotic concentration of blood serum? The list below compares the values for blood serum and mineral water against the values for sugary drinks, regular beer, and non-alcoholic beer from a 2016 study aptly titled “Suitability of Beer As An Alternative to Classical Fitness Drinks”.
- Blood serum: 275–295 mOsm (milliosmole) per kg of water
- Mineral Water: 13-119 mOsm/kg
- Typical carbohydrate- and electrolyte-rich sports drinks: 160-300 mOsm/kg
- Sugary drinks (fruit drinks, soda, energy drinks): 500-800 mOsm/kg
- Regular Beer, with alcohol: 900-1000 mOsm/kg
- Non-alcoholic beer: 300-400 mOsm/kg
So, non-alcoholic beer is roughly isotonic or a little hypertonic, but far closer to the osmolality of blood serum than soda or regular beer. Not perfect, but not bad, and a lot better than regular beer. However, there’s more to sports nutrition and performance than moving water from the gut to the bloodstream. Traditional carbohydrate- and electrolyte-rich sports drinks are still more effective for delivering energy quickly during and immediately after prolonged exercise. The ingredients and taste profile of sports drinks are also tailored to make them easy and appealing to consume while exercising, which is one of the reasons they’re not carbonated. On the other hand…
The Other Reasons to Consider Non-Alcoholic Beer
Osmolality and the rate of water absorption into the bloodstream aren’t on most people’s minds when they reach for something to drink. There are other reasons non-alcoholic beers are booming with athletes:
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- They taste good: Seriously, if your last experience with non-alcoholic beer was in the 1980s or 1990s, it’s time to give it another try. Normally, regular and non-alcoholic beer start out the same, and then the old ways to remove the alcohol were with heat or filtration, either of which degrades flavor. Today’s craft brewers reconfigured the entire process, and it worked. An IPA tastes like an IPA.
- They’re an alternative to sweet: When planning nutrition strategies with athletes for endurance events, we know it’s important to include a variety of taste and texture options. Flavor fatigue is very real. There are also times when an athlete’s preferences could have physiological origins, like when they’re craving salty foods. Sports drinks are often fruit flavored and tart, because that profile works well with the sodium content and increases athletes’ drive to drink. However, at the end of an event, or even sometimes during an event, an athlete might want something that’s not sweet, and non-alcoholic beer might fit the taste profile they’re looking for.
- They’re low in calories: Light beer and ultralight beer have been heavily and effectively marketed toward athletes, but beer makers reduced calories by removing the tasty parts and keeping the alcohol. Non-alcoholic brewers kept the tasty and aromatic bits and got rid of the alcohol, bringing the calorie range down to about 60-90 calories for a 12-ounce can. That might be great selling point to a calorie-conscious audience, but this low energy content also makes them less useful for replenishing carbohydrate stores following prolonged and strenuous workouts or events.
- They’re not impairing: Let’s face it, the safety, legal, and financial risks of driving drunk or even buzzed are really high. And if you’re looking for a scenario where a small amount of alcohol can have an outsized effect on your blood alcohol level, it would be consuming regular beer on an empty stomach while mildly dehydrated at the end of a long ride or run.
- More people are opting out of consuming alcohol: According to org, about 30% of American adults don’t drink alcohol at all (although the date range for that information is unclear), and while some of those people are in recovery, a lot of people simply prefer sobriety. According to a 2019 Nielsen report, there may also be a generational component in the US; 66% of Millennials said they were trying to reduce alcohol consumption, compared to 47% of the total US population over 21 years of age. Anecdotally, our coaches are seeing more and more athletes – across all age groups – quit or cut back on drinking. And what about COVID19? According to the International Wines and Spirits Record (IWSR), increased liquor store sales in 2020 didn’t outweigh the decline in alcohol served in bars and restaurants due to shutdowns and restrictions, and they don’t forecast the volume of alcohol sold in the US to rebound until 2024.
Even if none of the information above mattered, I believe the most compelling case for non-alcoholic beer is that the flavors, smells, and sensations we associate with experiences are part of what creates memories and connects new memories to old ones. I have a lot of great memories that include the first long gulp of an icy cold beer after a long, hot, and strenuous day on the bike with great friends. I can connect today’s experiences to those fond memories more effectively with a non-alcoholic beer than with a sweet or fruit-flavored drink. Similarly, certain foods pair well with the flavor of beer, or you associate the two from memories. Sometimes a sweet drink (or neutral like unsweetened iced tea) doesn’t complement or enhance the flavors on the plate. For me, tacos and beer belong together, and with today’s non-alcoholic beers I can experience them fully and then drive home, get a great night’s sleep, and ride well tomorrow.
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