Lager or Ale? Consider the Silicon Content of Beer

Silicon, found in beer, helps bone mineral density. But what kind to drink?


The evidence on alcohol and health is tricky to interpret. While heavy drinking does no one any favors, there may be benefits in moderate alcohol consumption for those who aren't at heightened risk of breast or colon cancer. Some research suggests, for example, that consuming up to two drinks a day for men, one for women, provides some cardiovascular protection. A study published in 2005 found that men and women who drank some but not a lot (one drink per day, three to seven days per week) were the leanest. And last year, research suggested that moderate alcohol consumption may also help boost bone mineral density, thus protecting against osteoporosis.

The caveat to all this is that there's no direct evidence that drinking causes the benefits that have been observed, just that people who drink moderately also seem to be in better health. But if you do wish to hoist a brew, a new study published in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture may at least help you decide between a pale ale and a lager. Researchers at the University of California–Davis measured the presence of dietary silicon, the element in beer suspected to benefit bone health. (The estrogenic effect of alcohol consumed in moderation also very likely plays a role.)

Silicon is also found in vegetables and whole grains, says Katherine Tucker, chair of the department of health sciences at Northeastern University in Boston and an author of the bone mineral density study published last year. But, she says, it's "highly" bioavailable—able to be absorbed and utilized—in beer. Because of that, beer is the major source of silicon in an average man's diet, she says. (Women, who drink less beer and generally eat more healthfully, are more likely to get it from food.)

The UC–Davis researchers wanted to know what type of beer offered the most silicon. They analyzed samples from 100 commercial beers bought at a local grocery store and found that on average, the silicon content was 29.4 parts per million (ppm). Indian Pale Ales, or IPAs, led the way, averaging 41.2 ppm. Ales in general averaged 32.8 ppm, regular lagers 23.8 ppm, and light lagers 17.2 ppm. "Beers containing high levels of malted barley and hops are richest in silicon," the authors concluded.

Obviously, this does not prove that IPA drinkers are less prone to osteoporosis than light-lager drinkers. But if you're going to drink beer, perhaps you'll feel better if you can tell yourself that you're maximizing your silicon intake. Or you could drink the nonalcoholic stuff; it averaged 16.3 ppm.

[Read The Skinny on Alcoholic Beverages and Weight Loss.]