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The Benefits of Drinking Wine

mcasias's picture


In the past year or two I have noticed a trend of adding extra antioxidants and other nutritional supplements to food. Tea bottles tell you how many milligrams of antioxidants you are receiving, while pomegranate and açaí are the free radical fighting flavors of choice, and granola bars, advertising the health benefits, are switching from milk to dark chocolate. Given that I like all of these things, I have no complaints, but I have wondered about the validity of these health claims. However, of all the super foods out there, the one I have always found the most counter intuitive is wine and its purported benefits.  On a very basic level it does make sense: grapes are good for you, and wine is made from grapes, so therefore it must also be good. Plus, I had always heard about all of those studies on wine, and Mediterranean diets in general, that prove in moderation it helps the heart, among other things. I set out intending to write this paper about why red wine in moderation can be part of a healthy lifestyle, but found the subject to be more contentious than I had been led to believe.
The current awareness of red wine, at least in the U.S., can be traced back to a 60 Minutes broadcast in November of 1991. In the program was a discussion of the “French Paradox”, in which the French have a high fat and dairy diet but have a low level of cardiovascular disease.1 After the segment aired, wine sales increased by an astounding 44% in the U.S.2 Multiple studies have shown a J or U shaped relationship between alcohol consumption and mortality from heart disease, placing moderate drinkers at the bottom of these curves where they are at the least risk.3 There are two components of wine that get most of the credit for its health properties: flavonoids and resveratrol. Flavonoids are plant pigments that have a high antioxidant capacity and are believed to have protective effects against cardiovascular diseases, cancers and other age related diseases.4 Resveratrol is a phytoalexin that protects the plant and while not fully understood, is thought to activate a longevity gene and act as an anti-inflammatory.5 Furthermore, alcohol itself prevents cholesterol from sticking to artery walls and acts as an anticoagulant.6,7
The main argument against all of this evidence does not come from studies that show the adverse effects, but from criticism against these studies that were thought to prove its health benefits, especially those created to look at the French Paradox connections. Roni Rabin, in a New York Times article, explains this criticism: “No study, these critics say, has ever proved a causal relationship between moderate drinking and lower risk of death – only that the two often go together. It may be that moderate drinking is just something healthy people tend to do, not something that makes people happy.” 8 A study of young Danish adults conducted in 2001 looked at socioeconomic status, education, IQ, personality, and other behaviors and compared these of moderate wine drinkers, beer drinkers and nondrinkers. They found that wine drinkers had a higher IQ and socioeconomic status while beer drinkers had lower scores.9 I do not think that variables like education and IQ can be influenced by wine and so this clearly demonstrates that wine drinkers represent a different group than non- wine drinkers, and can see why this study concluded that “the association between drinking habits and social and psychological characteristics, in large part, may explain the apparent health benefits of wine.” The studies that find health benefits in wine, according to the critics, miss these confounding variables. However, is there not space for both arguments? Wine drinkers could be healthier due to other factors but still may enjoy health benefits from wine. After all, there are studies that show that wine can also help maintain bone density, lower bad cholesterol, and lower the risk of dementia, certain cancers, and diabetes.10,11 Yet once again there are contradictory studies that show that for each drink consumed per day, breast cancer risks increases and other negative effects.12
Regardless, the claims of health benefits in wine have not only increased consumption, but led to the creation of new wine health products. One of the more interesting is the development of red wine powder. This powder is going to be used in foods like yogurt and chocolate, where it will impart taste and color along with proteins, b vitamins, minerals and polyphenols.13 It will also be used in makeup and skin creams. Additionally, white grapes are being grown and processed differently so that they will have a flavonoid content similar to that of red grapes, ideally making white wine just as full of health benefits as red. Another product is a resveratrol pill, which is actually extracted from Japanese knotweed but touted as having the benefits of red wine in a pill. An article in the Baltimore Sun puts some perspective on this pill: “the business of selling the supplement touted as an “anti-aging miracle” rests on a foundation of science that is as unstable and incomplete as it is promising. In fact, the marketing frenzy surrounding resveratrol is a prime example of how science can be distorted when it is mingled with hope, amplified for buzz and spun for profit.” 14 This really is the story of any health product, even the teas and other antioxidant laden foods I mentioned earlier. However, just because they have become subject to these distortions of marketing, I still think that there is some merit to these foods.
With wine, I am about where I started: intrigued by its range of benefits but all the same still skeptical and wary of the possible ill effects.  In moderation, I think red wine is at worst neutral. Moderation is key, because while it may make you feel better to drink red wine over other alcohol, going on about why it is healthy while you drain a bottle will get you nowhere. Furthermore, if the argument against wine is that wine drinkers have healthier lifestyles overall, then moderate wine drinking must be accompanied by this healthy lifestyle. If this makes you the healthiest, then does it matter what exactly is causing it? Of course I would still want to know out of curiosity and would hope that researchers would continue to pursue the matter, but I suppose pinning your health on the latest ‘discovery’ is pointless if you can’t practice moderation overall and incorporate things into an already (or at least relatively) healthy diet.
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Paul Grobstein's picture

wine and health

A key issue here is that many epidemiological studies (of many things, not only wine) show correlation rather than causation, and hence are always subject to the concern that an unknown third variable may influence both measured variables rather than one being causal to the other.  The reservation doesn't say there isn't a causal relation between the two but does say the observations are inadequate to establish such a relation.  Maybe people would be less taken by such studies if their limitations were more consistently pointed out?  Or if people better understood science in general?