Categorized | Commentary

The 411 on Wine & Health

If there is one subject that catches one’s attention, it is a report that brings health and wine into the limelight in a good way. This is why I was paying attention to Jamie Goode’s take on Wine and Health. Having recently attended the International Wine & Heart Health Summit, I was interested in what Jamie had to say on the topic.

I agree wholeheartedly with Jamie’s comment, “…not all [scientific] studies are good. If you are trawling the scientific literature looking for evidence about wine and health, you need to be able to discriminate the good studies from the less good ones.” Why are most reports misleading? Many of them exclude facts—whether it is through convenience or purposely removed to fit a specific agenda, it makes it hard to sift through what is fact and what is not. Equally, the way commentators report evidence can be distorted and misleading. Sometimes it only tells part of the story, glossing over flaws, and ‘cherry picking’ the scientific evidence which shows one treatment in a particular light.

As I was reading Jamie’s post, I was glad he brought up the research about the J-shaped curve. Having attended Dr. Harvey E. Finkel’s presentation at the Wine & Heart Health Summit, Life is a J-shaped curve, it was easy to understand health effects of alcohol through a graph that represented a typical U-shaped or J-shaped curve. In simple terms, the J-shaped curve illustrates those who drink one or two glasses of wine per day live longer than abstainers and much longer than heavy drinkers.

When Dr. Finkel first showed me this graph, I had an ah ha! epiphany. It was at this moment that I came to realize why there was so much confusion about wine and health. Why? Because a journalist could use this scientific data to write a story supporting, “Mortality is certain with Wine Consumption” and another could write a story, “If You Want to Live Longer, Drink Wine”. It all ties back to how the information is communicated by the messenger, essentially ‘cherry picking’ the scientific evidence which shows one treatment in a particular light.

On a separate note, Roger Corder gave a presentation during this session on The Importance of Dietary Polyphenols for Optimal Vasular Heath. What I found most interesting with Roger’s presentation was the importance of polyphenols found in grape pips and skins. Corder went on to say, “Total polyphenol concentrations in red wine typically range from 1-3.5 g/L, but some wines made from Tannat and Sagrantio grapes exceed 5 g/L. Purification of polyphenols from red wine identified oligometric procyanidins (OPC, a type of favanol). Clinical trials of flavanol-rich products containing OPC show that endothelial function can be improved by such dietary interventions. Future clinical trials of OPC-rich products are likely to provide further support for the beneficial effects of OPC for treating and preventing cardiovascular disease.”

But on to antioxidants,  I found something missing from Jamie’s discussion that I think is important to point out: The misconception of Flavonoids in wine.

Jamie reports, “Many wine commentators are under the potential misconception that red wine is good for health because of its antioxidant properties. The evidence suggests that this isn’t the case.”  The evidence he is referring to is a report done on meta-analysis looking at the evidence for health benefits of antioxidants. The report concludes that there is no evidence to support antioxidant supplements prevents mortality in healthy people or patients with various diseases. This isn’t a report on wine, per say but he ties it to wine by stating,

“The antioxidant story resonates with people’s preconceptions. There are other components in wine that might make it healthful, not least among which is alcohol itself. Many studies show that there’s a health benefit with beer and other alcoholic drinks. But still, despite the evidence against any benefit from dietary antioxidants, that’s the story people cling to.”

I don’t debunk the scientific report, nor do I disagree with Jamie’s bottom line, but I think we came to similar conclusions based on different information.

Red wine is high in flavonoids.  Flavonoids are antioxidants. Wine flavonoids act as good antioxidants in a test tube, but they do not act as an antioxidant in the human body.  This is evident with Balz Frei, Ph.D., Professor of Biochemistry & Biophysics, Director and Endowed Chair Linus Pauling Institute:

“Flavonoids are a large family of polyphenolic compounds synthesized by plants that have a common chemical structure. Following ingestion, flavonoids are likely to undergo a change in chemical structure during exposure to stomach acids and enzymes. Flavonoids are poorly absorbed into blood and rapidly eliminated from the body; thus, flavonoids have low eventual biological availability or ‘bioavailability’–the fraction of ingested substance reaching target organs. Unfortunately, many test tube experiments published in the scientific literature showing strong antioxidant activity of flavonoids have used very high, unphysiological concentrations and parent chemical structures (rather than metabolites) of flavonoids. When these results are conveyed to the public, a misunderstanding may occur about the actual biological significance of flavonoids, leading consumers to believe incorrectly that flavonoids have important antioxidant value.”

Going back to the research on J-shaped relationships between alcohol consumption and mortality rates, there is evidence conducted by J. Michael Gaziano et al. that states light-to-moderate alcohol consumption reduces cardiovascular disease and cancer. But why is this? The study reveals, “…alcohol has many proposed metabolic, physiologic and psychological effects on the individual as well as many societal repercussions related to heavier drinking…”

And, “…given the complex nature of the relationship of alcohol with various diseases, alcohol consumption can neither be viewed as a primary preventative strategy nor should it necessarily be viewed as an unhealthy behavior.”

This probably leaves you with more questions than answers, but I hope the next time you come across a scientific report, you will question the source and challenge the facts, including mine. Look for the motivation and question why they wrote it.

Wine glass photo credit: easierlivingblog.com.

This post was written by:

- who has written 294 posts on Enobytes Wine Online.

Editor and co-founder of Enobytes.com, Pamela is a former restaurant manager, wine buyer, and sommelier with WSET, CMS & Center for Wine Origins certification. She has contributed to or been quoted by various publications, including the Los Angeles Times, Sommelier Journal, Vegetarian Times, VIV Magazine, UC-Berkeley Astrobiology News, The Washington Post, the Associated Press, and USA Today. True to her roots, she seeks varietal and appellation integrity and is always passionate about finding the next great bottle of wine.

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5 Responses to “The 411 on Wine & Health”

  1. Samantha says:

    Excellent article Pamela. What are your thoughts on the research on breast cancer and wine?

    • enobytes says:

      There is a lot of good research out there. I’m not a medical professional, but my take on it is that drinking quality wine in moderation is beneficial.

  2. Eldora says:

    What a joy to find someone else who thinks this way.

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