Tuesday 25 January 2011

Beer, coffee and the middle classes

Over at ep-ology, Carl V. Philips continues his blogging marathon. All his posts are worth reading, but this one particularly interested me. It refers to this pro-beer story:

Here was the best part:

It might seem unlikely, but beer (just like any wine, spirits, or other alcohol), when consumed in moderate amounts, has health benefits.
I hope the anti-alcohol disinformation has not been so effective that this actually still seems unlikely to most readers, but at least the message was accurate, which it usually is not. For some reason, a myth persists that red wine. alone among alcoholic beverages, reduces heart attack risk and has other benefits, but there is no benefit from other drinks. The evidence that all sources of alcohol have similar effects been clear for decades. There was originally a hypothesis, ages ago, that the French Paradox (the fact that the French have better cardiovascular health than would have been predicted from naive models from many decades ago that over-emphasized the badness of dietary fats) might be explained by a benefit from red wine. Red wine indeed turned out to be beneficial, but no more so then the more plebeian brown liquids that most of us prefer.

I said "for some reason", but I suppose the persistence of the myth is neither a mystery nor an accident. Similar to the myth that all tobacco/nicotine use causes large health risks, the myth about red wine is used by moralizing activists, who pretend to be motivated by their health "sciencey" claims but are really using the language of science to support their purification campaigns without admitting their political motives. In this case, studies of isoflavones and such, and biased reviews of the data that cherry-pick any statistics that favor wine over beer, are used to try to convince people that the benefits are from a few stray molecules left over from the grape skin, rather than the ethanol. Since relatively few of the unwashed masses that these activists are trying to manipulate have red wine as their drink of choice, the activists can continue to pretend that almost all drinking is bad.

I really do think there is a class issue at work here...

So do I, which is why I bring it to your attention. Whenever temperance types such as Ian Gilmore make an effort to stress that they are not calling for teetotalism, they invariably mention the agreeable glass of wine with dinner. If they are feeling particularly brave/honest, they might even mention that the agreeable glass of wine is good for the ticker. They tend not to endorse a glass of vodka after work, or a bottle of Old Thumper before bed-time, although both would be equally healthful.

It seems reasonable to attribute this prejudice to the middle class's dominance in public health and the media (and in pretty much everything else). Of course, it could be argued that although the cardiovascular benefits are the same (because they come from the alcohol itself), it is better to drink wine from a public order perspective. In an essay that is sadly absent from the internet, Frank Zappa once wrote that "wino's don't march" ie. they tend to be less prone Neanderthal behaviour at closing time. Likewise, anecdotal evidence tells me that people drunk on whisky behave somewhat differently than those drunk on gin.

Or perhaps not. For all I know there are a huge number of studies showing that the type of drink makes no difference and it's all a case of reverse causation (ie. overly emotional and occasionally violent people happen to prefer drinking whisky). Whatever the case, wine has long been the drink of respectable society and it is also a staple of the much-glorified Mediterranean lifestyle. This, as Carl says, led to the exaggerated health benefits of wine at the expense of beer. This is changing, in the USA at least, because beer is becoming more popular:

When I came of age, there were only 60 breweries operating in all of America, and 99.9% of what they produced was little more than cheap slightly-alcoholic bubbly water. Most anyone reading about the benefits of alcohol for a decade and a half after that saw nothing but the red wine myth, and those of us who knew enough to know the science and that there was such a thing as good beer did our own brewing (I was pretty good at it) and research (I published one paper about this ages ago). Eric Rimm has been communicating the same message contained in the WebMD story for at least 20 years. But now, with more than 1000 craft breweries and dozens of fairly large high-quality operations in the U.S., people who would have been wine snobs a generation ago now drink fancy beer, so the health news is no longer entirely anti-beer.

Whilst I'm in the mood for a little speculation, I have occasionally wondered if the same was true for coffee. Coffee is hardly a taboo drink, but it was a target of prohibitionists way back when and there was a lingering suspicion of it for many years (it does, after all, contain a supposedly addictive drug). For many decades coffee would be regularly 'linked' to various cancers. But over the last ten years or so, studies have been more likely to say coffee is good for you (eg. reduces prostate cancer risk, good for the brain, reverses Alzheimer's). It may well be coincidence, but this turnaround seems to have occurred at a time when coffee houses run by big chains have popped up on every street-corner, and hanging around in Starbuck's has become de riguer. See also bottled water, which I have ranted about before.

Or not. Let me know in the comments. For full disclosure, I drink a lot of coffee and a lot of red wine. I've never been in a Starbuck's and I generally avoid bottled water.


Anonymous said...

Some of these doctors genuinely believe that anyone, such as myself, who drinks £3.29 red wine is a down and out. One actually used the phrase "normal people" in a quote about raising the minimum price to £4.50 a bottle. If I earned 100k a year, I'd be spending £7 rather than £3.29 on a bottle. They inevitably lose touch with ordinary life.

Curmudgeon said...

And of course you now have lots of middle-class people in the UK drinking "fancy beer", although it doesn't seem to be recognised very much by the Daily Mail.

Anonymous said...

Well Beer also has the added bonus over other types of Alchohol as it is mostly water,therefore more diluted so the intake of alchohol is slower ,unless you neck it of course.

Anonymous said...

"The Undercover Economist" comes to mind. I believe you've read this book, CS.

You might recall that near the beginning of the book, Harford discusses how perception is tied to pricing so that people with widely varying incomes can be charged different prices for what amounts to being the exact same thing. For example, Someone who makes $100,000 a year is likely willing to pay more for organic food or highly advertised brand names because it makes them feel better and they can afford it. This is why supermarkets often have a separate section for organic food. It isn't simply put there as a convenience, but also because it prevents someone from being enticed by seeing the lower-priced non-organic items sitting next to them on the shelf.

While this probably doesn't apply to most of us when it comes to wine vs. beer, it shouldn't be forgotten that there is no high-price market for beer (that I'm aware of, anyway). We've all heard the phrase, "that's a __ thousand dollar bottle of wine." There's a high end collectors market.

But the same is true for whisky to a degree. So, why is just wine the preferred "healthy" alcohol? I would guess that the difference alcohol content serves as a mitigating factor in terms of the perception of wine vs. whisky. Not sure otherwise.

I recently was in a waiting room and was reading a copy of Cigar Afficianado magazine. I was surprised, and a bit angered, to learn that high-priced cigar smokers have positioned themselves against cigarette smokers. The claim is that cigarette smoke corrupts the enjoyment of cigar smoke. Talk about elitist delusions...

So, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes is considered to be for the proles. People who sip high-priced wine and puff high-priced cigars don't care about sin taxes because they can afford them. And exemptions from anti-smoking laws are made for cigar smoking venues that are never made for cigarette smoking venues.

Nicotine is just nicotine when it comes to a cigarette vs. nicotine gum. That never applies though, when it comes to people who smoke $100 cigars.