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Calories Increase with Alcohol Concentration of Beer Drinking 1 Can Comparable to Eating 1 Bowl of Rice Improvement Urged as All Samples Detected with Biogenic Amines Large Amount May Cause Nausea and Vomiting

  • 2024.04.15

Alcohol is a staple for many social gatherings and meals, and while beer is one of the most popular alcoholic beverages, one should avoid over drinking while having a good time. For the first time ever, the Consumer Council tested 30 prepackaged beers in cans or bottles and found that consuming 1 can/bottle of beer could lead to an energy intake of over 200kcal, which is almost equivalent to that of 1 bowl of rice, and drinking 2 cans each day for 3 months might lead to a 5-pound fat gain. Even if the drinking volume is not high, a higher alcoholic content results in a higher calorie intake. However, consumers may not be able to identify products with fewer calories simply based on the labelled alcohol by volume (ABV), as 6 tested samples were found with considerable discrepancy between the labelled ABV and test results, among which 4 samples’ measured values were higher than the labelled value by 0.5% or more. In addition, all samples were detected with different types and levels of biogenic amines, in which 2 samples were detected with comparatively higher levels of biogenic amines, and 1 sample was even detected with the mycotoxin DON. A large amount of DON could cause symptoms such as nausea and vomiting. The Council reminds consumers that apart from paying attention to the calories of alcoholic beverages and the risk in weight gain, they should be aware that alcohol has been classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by the World Health Organization (WHO). Consumers are advised to minimise their intake of alcohol to avoid increased risks of various chronic diseases and cancers.

The 30 samples of prepackaged canned or bottled beer were purchased from supermarkets, department stores, and retail outlets, with prices from $4.5 to $50 per can or bottle, and volume ranging from 330ml to 500 ml. The labelled ABV ranged from 3% to 8.0%. Tests mainly examined the nutritional value, safety, and quality of the samples.

The Higher the Alcohol Content the Higher the Calorific Value

Daily Consumption of 2 Cans May Add 5 Pounds of Fat in 3 Months

Cold beer is refreshing and tasty, making it easy to drink a bottle/can or two more than intended, especially in the summer heat, during leisure time or social gatherings. Over time, excess consumption may turn into a “beer belly”. The current test found that beers with higher alcohol content had relatively higher energy value. Making reference to relevant European Union (EU) regulation, the test measured the nutritional values of each sample, then the energy value was calculated using relevant conversion factors. The energy values of samples ranged from 33kcal to 66kcal per 100ml, and from 112kcal to 230kcal per can or bottle. Based on the content per 100ml, the sample with the highest energy value (66kcal) was also the one with the highest detected alcohol concentration (7.46%); the sample with the second highest detected alcohol concentration (7.42%) had the second highest energy value (57kcal); while the remaining had an alcohol concentration of 5.55% or below, with energy values all lower than 50kcal.

Taking for example a 330ml can of beer with 5% ABV, it contains around 13g of alcohol, which will contribute to roughly the same calories as a bowl of rice. Assuming 2 cans are consumed daily for 3 months, the energy intake from the alcohol alone would be approximately 16,500kcal, which may be converted into about 5 pounds of fat tissue. Combined with a lack of physical exercise, the excess fat may accumulate in internal organs, and excess visceral fat will be stored around the abdomen area, leading to “central obesity”, i.e. “beer belly”. Individuals with central obesity have greater risks of coronary heart disease, stroke, hypertension, diabetes, and certain types of cancer.

Detected Alcohol Content of 6 Samples Varied Considerably from Labelling

5 Samples Most Accurate

According to the Food and Drugs (Composition and Labelling) (Amendment) Regulation 2004, drinks with an ABV more than 1.2% but less than 10% are exempt from some of the food labelling requirements and are not required to be labelled with an ingredients list and nutrition label. When choosing a beer, consumers can only rely on the alcohol content and volume labelled on the product to estimate and choose a beer with a lower calorie count, thus the accuracy of a product’s labelled ABV is crucial. However, the test found that 20% of the samples (6 samples) had a significant discrepancy between the detected and labelled alcohol content. The labelled ABV ranged from the lowest of 3% to the highest of 8.0% among samples, while test results ranged from 3.39% to 7.46%. Among them, 4 samples were detected with alcohol content higher than the labelled value by 0.5% or more, while 2 samples were detected with alcohol content lower than the labelled value by over 0.5%. Out of all samples, only 5 were found to have the minimum discrepancies between the labelled and detected alcohol content (less than 0.05% discrepancy). There is currently no legislation or standard in Hong Kong that sets a tolerance limit for the discrepancy between labelled alcohol content and actual alcohol concentration. With reference to EU regulation, a tolerance limit of ±0.5% deviation is set for beers with a labelled ABV of not more than 5.5%, while that for beers with a labelled ABV of more than 5.5% is 1.0%. With reference to the EU regulation, the Council’s tests found that 4 samples failed to meet this requirement, among which 1 sample was labelled with “over or equal to 3.7% alcohol”, but the test result was 4.67%, which was a 0.97% variance from the lowest labelled value. However, as various regional standards or legislations stipulate labelling of alcohol content in exact numbers instead of within a range, the way this sample was labelled might lead to misunderstanding that the sample contains “3.7% alcohol” or the alcohol content is very close to 3.7%. The Council urges the manufacturer to make improvements and label the alcohol content accurately.

Mycotoxin Detected in 1 Sample

Manufacturers Urged to Use Quality Ingredients

Barley, a raw ingredient for beer, may be contaminated by mould if stored improperly, and mycotoxins therein may remain in the beer after the production process. According to the test results on the 8 mycotoxins commonly found in beer, only 1 sample was found to contain deoxynivalenol (DON) at a level of 26 micrograms (μg) per kg. If a 60kg adult drinks 4 cans of beer within a day, the level of DON consumed is still within the safety level. However, the risks of DON should not be taken lightly. Excessive intake of DON, also known as “Vomitoxin”, may cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal pain, and fever within 30 minutes of ingestion, which is similar to the symptoms of other gastrointestinal illnesses and is not easy to diagnose. Prolonged or high intake of DON may cause adverse health effects. The Council recommends manufacturers to select quality, purified, and well-stored ingredients more stringently for brewing beer, so as to minimise the risk of DON existing in their products.

Up to 7 Types of Biogenic Amines Found in All Samples

May Cause Nausea and Vomiting

Biogenic amines are by-products of the alcohol fermentation process and are generally considered as one of the key indicators of quality, safety, and hygiene of alcoholic beverages. Excessive intake of biogenic amines may cause headache, dizziness, vomiting, respiratory distress, and even cerebral haemorrhage. All samples were detected with different types and concentrations of biogenic amines. 1 sample was found with 7 types of biogenic amines, the most among all samples, and it was also detected with relatively high levels of agmatine (84.7mg) and putrescine (47.6mg); 1 other sample was found to contain 5 types of biogenic amines, also with a high level of putrescine (32.8mg) while detected levels of agmatine was as high as 121.4mg, the highest level of a single biogenic amine detected in all samples.

Currently there are no local or international safety requirements or upper limit for biogenic amines in beer, and it is also difficult for consumers to know the biogenic amine levels in beer purely based on the packaging or ingredients. As biogenic amines are present in many food products and drinks such as rotten fish and fish products, fermented products, etc., consumers should be aware of the storage of food products and avoid intake of excess fermented products and alcoholic drinks to minimise the intake of biogenic amines.

According to the WHO, alcohol is a toxic substance which is classified as “carcinogenic to humans” (i.e. Group 1 carcinogen) by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), and can cause many types of cancers. Apart from paying heed to and controlling the intake of alcohol, consumers may refer to the following tips when choosing and consuming beer:

  • If consumers want to drink beer, choose beer according to the labelled ABV and volume to avoid excessive intake of alcohol and calories;
  • Non-alcoholic beers may still contain a small amount of alcohol (about 0.5%). Consumers allergic to alcohol, pregnant women, people taking medicine or drivers should pay special attention;
  • The colour of beer does not correspond to its alcohol content. Many people assume that pale-coloured beer has a lower alcohol content, but in fact, the ABV  of light blonde Belgian beer could be over 10%, while that of darker beer such as stout is about the same as regular beer (5%);
  • According to the Chinese Nutrition Society’s Chinese Dietary Guidelines, adults should not consume more than 15g of alcohol per day, i.e. 1 can of beer per day is already likely to exceed the recommended limit;
  • The ideal temperature for storing beer should be between 5°C and 10°C. Storing beer at high temperatures or under sunlight may cause it to spoil easily or shorten its shelf life, while storing it at a very low temperature may affect its aroma;
  • Studies have shown that craft beer is more susceptible to spoilage than beer from large breweries, as it often foregoes pasteurisation or sterile filtration. Consumers who wish to brew their own beer should pay special attention to the quality of the raw ingredients as well as the storage period.


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