Slàinte, Salud, and Saħħa – three words that are all used in the same way and to convey the same sentiment. Slàinte is Scots Gaelic, Salud is Spanish, and Saħħa is Maltese. All are used as toasts when glasses of alcholol are raised and all essentially translate as “good health”.
Good health is one of the things we often wish for ourselves and our friends and family as the pages of our calendars turn and we embark on a new year. Growing up in Scotland it was quite common to wish someone not only a happy New Year but a healthy one as well. And as we know New Year resolutions often include promises to lead healthier lifestyles – eat more fruits and vegetables, exercise more, stop smoking, or lose weight, etc. Indeed according to research by the Nielsen Corporation the top two New Year resolutions made by Americans are staying fit and healthy (36% in 2016 said they planned to do that) and losing weight (32.%). Sadly we are not particularly good at keeping those resolutions we make. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Scranton and published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology found that only eight percent of Americans achieved their resolution’s goal.
Diet and exercise are key components of a healthy lifestyle. When it comes to healthy eating the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) provide what appear to be some common sense guidelines. In a document titled Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020 the CDPC recommends that alcohol, if consumed, should be restricted to one alcoholic drink per day for women and two per day for men. That would translate into one twelve ounce beer for women and two for men. This also assumes that the beer consumed is around 5% ABV.
In recent years there have been a number of scientific studies that have examined the potential health benefits of beer. Among other things, there is evidence that moderate beer consumption (a pint or two per day) can reduce the risk of having a stroke or developing cardiovascular disease, developing kidney stones, and developing type 2 diabetes (among men). Beer can also contribute to stronger bones, lower the incidence of dementia (although wine does a better job), and reduce the chances of getting cataracts (darker ales and stouts are more effective).
Today drinking lots of water is considered an integral part of a healthy diet. However, during the the Middle Ages the water was not particularly safe to drink. Enter beer stage left – part of beer’s popularity during this period was driven by the fact that it was safer to drink than the water. In his book Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance Richard W. Unger writes that beer “was the beverage of choice of urban populations that lacked access to secure sources of potable water; a commodity of economic as well as social importance; a safe drink for daily consumption that was less expensive than wine; and a major source of tax revenue for the state.” In others words beer was consumed as as something of a preventive measure against disease. Writing in the twelfth century St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) a Benedictine nun wrote that “whether one is healthy or infirm, if one is thirsty after sleeping one should drink wine or beer but not water. For water might damage rather than help one’s blood and humours …beer fattens the flesh and … lends a beautiful colour to the face. Water, however, weakens a person.”
Beer was used for medicinal purposes by Captain James Cook during his three voyages to the South Pacific (1768-1780). Cook, a captain in the British Royal Navy, was particularly concerned with keeping his men free from scurvy, a disease brought on by a lack of Vitamin C. According to B. J. Stubbs, in an article published in the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition, “by the late eighteenth century, beer was considered to be at once a food (a staple beverage and essential part of the sea diet), a luxury (helping to ameliorate the hardship and irregularity of sea life) and a medicine (conducive to health at sea). In particular, beer and its precursors, wort and malt, were administered with the aim of preventing and curing scurvy.” During Cook’s time ale was a standard part of a sailor’s ration, with each man given a gallon per day. The beer brewed aboard Cook’s ships was spruce beer – as the name suggests in included parts of the spruce tree which contained Vitamin C. While it is questionable whether the spruce beer contained enough Vitamin C to be effective against scurvy Cook was convinced of its efficacy.
In seventeenth century Europe, Catholic monks used beer as a nutritional supplement during the Lenten period. The practice was started (the exact year is uncertain) by Paulaner monks at the Cloister Neudeck ob der Au in Munich, Germany. The style of beer brewed (in fact invented) by the Paulaner monks was a doppelbock – – high gravity beer with an ABV that was generally between seven and twelve percent. The monks named their doppelbock Salvator (or Savior). It was indeed a savior, providing the monks with much needed nutrition during the Lenten period. Salvator is still brewed today in the Paulaner Brewery in Munich.
One of history’s great beer lovers, the sixteenth century Christian reformer, Martin Luther spoke of the beneficial impact that beer had on both his constipation and his insomnia. Luther traveled a lot and while away from home would write letters to his wife Katie. In one such letter letter he wrote of the laxative quality of the local beer that he was drinking (“three bowel movements in three hours” Luther wrote) and in another letter he noted how well he was sleeping as a result of consuming the local beer.
In the early 1900s patients in Australian hospitals were given Stout by the doctors there. This was done as it was believed that the Stout would boost iron levels in the patient’s blood (even though there was no iron in the Stout). In fact the Melbourne Cooperative Brewery brewed an ale which they called Abbotsford Invalid Stout. A printed advertisement for the Stout from the 1930s shows a nurse holding a serving tray upon which she is carrying a bottle of the Invalid Stout. Abbotsford Invalid Stout is still brewed today, although I am not sure that too many Australian doctors are prescribing it to address iron deficiencies.
In the United States, prior to Prohibition, ‘medicinal beer‘ was commonly prescribed as a therapeutic agent in the treatment of a wide variety of diseases including typhoid fever, constipation, diabetes, staph infection, and tuberculosis. In late nineteenth century America there was a consensus that beer had medical benefits. Indeed, an 1866 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, noted that “moderate use of pure beer [would] aid digestion, quicken the powers of life, and give elasticity to the body and mind”. By the start of Prohibition in 1920 however, the consensus was waning. A 1921 survey of over thirty thousand medical practitioners across the United States found that only twenty-six percent believed that beer had medicinal qualities. However, after Prohibition came into effect, a group of physicians lobbied the federal government for the right to prescribe beer for medicinal purposes. Even doctors who did not believe in the medicinal qualities of beer supported this lobby as a matter of principle – who was the government to dictate to doctors what they could or could not prescribe in the treatment of maladies? The physicians lobbying efforts were successful and ‘medicinal beer’ was permitted as the result of a ruling by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer in March 1921.
Following Mitchell’s ruling, an article in the New York Times, published on March 11, 1921 noted that:
“Leading breweries in the metropolitan district announced yesterday that they were ready to supply the legitimate trade with all of the real beer required for medicinal purposes, under a decision of former Attorney General Palmer. All that was needed to start the movement of beer to the drug stores was the issuance of permits. Brewers said that they expected these permits to be available within a few days.”
However, the victory was short-lived as the passage of the Willis-Campbell Law in November 1921 outlawed medicinal beer.
Another beer for whom some wonderful health claims have been made is Guinness. First brewed in 1759 Guinness has been particularly creative when it comes to advertising its roduct. Guinness’s first newspaper ad appeared in Britain’s Daily Express on 6 February 1929. The ad extols Guiness’s health-giving value and nourishing properties. According to the ad:
“Guinness builds strong muscles. It feeds exhausted nerves. It enriches the blood. Doctors affirm that Guinness is a valuable restorative after Influenza and other weakning illnesses. Guinness is a valuable natural aid in cases against insomnia. Guinness is one of the most nourishing beverages, richer in carbo-hydrates than a glass of milk. That is one reason why it is so good when people are tired or exhausted”
At the bottom of the ad it states, very simply, “GUINNESS IS GOOD FOR YOU”. Reading these extraordinary claims contained in this ad I am reminded of the traveling medicine man that you sometimes see in westerns whose lotions, potions, and elixirs seemingly cure any ailment under the sun. Guinness produced a series of breathtakingly brilliant ad/posters that built on the idea that the ruby red (the official color of Guinness) brew is good for you. There is some scientific research examining the health benefits of Guinness. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Wisconsin found that a pint of Guinness day may reduce blood clots, hence helping prevent heart attacks. However, Diageo, the owners of Guinness today make no claims regarding the health benefits of their brew.
Well, 2016 has come and gone. 2017 is upon us. So I raise a glass and wish everyone a happy and healthy 2017. I wish you a wonderful year of enjoying beer – in moderation, of course. Slàinte, Salud, and Saħħa.
Engdahl, Andrew. 2012. A Curious Elixir: Medicinal Beer in the Age of Prohibition. The Forum: Journal of History. Volume 4, Issue 1, Pages 22-36.
Stubbs, B.J. 2003. Captain Cook’s Beer : The Antoiscorbutic Use of Malt and Beer in Late 18th Century Sea Voyages. Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 12, Issue 2, Pages 129-137.
Unger, Richard W. 2004. Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvsnia Press.
Acknowledgement – Thanks to my friend and colleague Peggy Gripshover for providing me with old newspaper articles about medicinal beer.