Kicking back with a beer to relax after the end of a long day is a time-honored tradition. For athletes and sports enthusiasts, however, there may be another good reason to drink up: because beer—specifically nonalcoholic beer and the malt it contains—may help to enhance exercise-related performance, energy, and recovery.
It’s true, in fact, that Olympic athletes in Germany often drink beer after training or after their competitive events, as reported by The New York Times last year. And while drinking nonalcoholic beer isn’t a new practice, more recently purveyors of nonalcoholic beer are marketing these drinks “to health-conscious consumers,” the Times reports.
Nonalcoholic beer is said to provide a high load of antioxidants and polyphenols, which help to combat inflammation—key for athletic recovery—as well as other key nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. It also contains a plant-based nootropic compound called hordenine that can help increase focus and energy.
But is there any evidence that nonalcoholic beer can actually benefit athletic performance? In 2012, a group of researchers from Germany, led by the doctor for Germany’s Olympic ski team, published a randomized, double-blind study conducted on 277 healthy male runners. These runners were assigned to drink 1.0-1.5 L of nonalcoholic beer, or a placebo, three weeks before and two weeks after competing in a marathon. Based on analysis of blood samples, the researchers determined that nonalcoholic-beer subjects experienced reduced inflammation and reduced incidence of respiratory tract illness—both of which can otherwise increase following strenuous exercise.
Malt Products Corp. (Saddle Brook, NJ), a manufacturer of malted barley extract and other natural sweeteners, says this evidence and growing interest in nonalcoholic beer’s support of athletes is why companies like the Athletic Brewing Co. are appealing to consumers looking to live a healthier lifestyle.
Amy Targan, president of Malt Products Corp., explained to Nutritional Outlook that traditional methods of brewing nonalcoholic beer are not the most desirable if your goal is to preserve the best of the nutrients within—including malt. (Malt comes from barley or cereal grains—produced through the malting process—and are used for various purposes, including beer making.) The best way, Targan said, may be to start with a malt extract like the ones her company provides.
“A key factor here is the way the nonalcoholic beer is produced,” Targan said. “When making a nonalcoholic beer by removing the alcohol, you lose a certain amount of proteins, minerals, antioxidants, and soluble fiber during processing, first during fermentation and then during the de-alcohol process. So, traditionally made nonalcoholic beer is actually not the most efficient way to make a nonalcoholic malt-based drink. Breweries use this method not because it is the best way to preserve the malted barley but because they are set up as a brewery, making it easier for them to produce it this way. By using malt extract as the base of the beverage, the nutritional properties of malted barley are better preserved because you can skip processes that otherwise would decrease the beverage’s nutritional value.” Flavor-wise, malt extract enhances the taste of both alcoholic and nonalcoholic beer.
According to Targan, the level of malt extract in a nonalcoholic beer is plenty enough to offer real antioxidant benefits to consumers. She said: “A beverage that adds one teaspoon of malt extract has five times the antioxidants of one cup of broccoli and twice that of blueberries. I am not aware of a study which shows precisely the amount of malt that is the right dose for athletes. But athletes are clearly better served by rehydrating with a malt-based beverage than a sugary drink like Gatorade.”
Aside from the aforementioned 2012 study, there isn’t a lot of formal research looking into the specific athletic effects of malt and nonalcoholic beer. But curiosity about the possibilities is growing, and this is one reason Targan said that her company is seeing increased interest from makers of energy and sports recovery drinks.
“I can only point to anecdotal information that we are personally seeing a demand from flavor houses and beverage manufacturers for samples of our malt extract to be used in development of energy and sports recovery drinks,” she said. “We also are seeing an increase from craft breweries requesting our in-house formulators to support them in developing malt-based teas and other nonalcoholic malt-based drinks, to supplement their offerings as the craft brew market starts to flatten.”
Interest also continues to grow in the taste benefits such ingredients offer. “Typically, I would say that the addition of flavors is to make their product more original and differentiated from competitors rather than a means of masking undesirable flavors,” Targan said.