Here’s a Health to Thee
Is wine good for humans or not? Hunh?
by Lance Sparks
Growers of grapes, makers of wine, sellers of wine and related enterprisers — even, ahem, writers about wine — all are tickled with Findings of Recent Science: WINE IS GOOD FOR US. More strictly speaking, some studies indicate that there are some health benefits that can be associated with wine, particularly red wine, or its chemical components, when consumed in moderate quantities.
How ‘good” wine might be and in what quantities it might be consumed for greatest benefits are still open questions. But early evidence is still heart-warming for members of the wine industry and, of course, for imbibers of wine.
The good news started arriving decades ago when scientists were intrigued by what was called the “French Paradox.” The curiously engaging fact was that, on average, citizens of France seemed to be consuming a diet rich in such cholesterol-friendly foods as butter, red meat, egg yolks, triple cream Brie, etc.; French folk, it seemed, should have been biffed by heart attacks at alarming rates. Yet those wily Frenchies apparently registered lower levels of “bad” cholesterol than would be expected. After considerable study, health scientists concluded that the variable in the French diet that seemed to be contributing to overall heart health had to be wine, especially red wine.
When, in 1991, 60 Minutes aired its sanguine report on the French Paradox, celebrations ensued, and, we should note, there rapidly grew a gap between actual findings and statements published by researchers and reports of those findings as published in various media. As usual, scientists were much more circumspect in their claims than the reporters who summarized what “they said” and “they’ve found.” Just for one calming caveat, we could look at the gap between statistical correlations and actual causality.
Causality is one of the most difficult yet most valuable of scientific discoveries: if we know that X causes Y, then we know a certain law and can make accurate predictions. For example, if we know that a particular bacterium causes a particular disease, and we happen to find cases of such disease, we know where to look for the cause or at least know which agent to seek, wherever it might be. Statistical correlations, on the other hand, are more problematic: if we can correlate two (or more) variables beyond chance, we can make probabilistic statements that help us assess risk, but it’s a long way from probability to certainty. In fact, that’s a line that can never be crossed statistically — probability only approaches certainty, never reaches it. It makes no sense to say, for instance, that there’s a 100% chance of rain; that’s not chance, that’s certainty. That’s rain.
And no sooner had reports of the French Paradox been aired than annoying little problems began to crop up. Later researchers pointed out that variables other than wine consumption might be involved; indeed, some research seemed to show that moderate consumption of any alcohol — beer, hard liquor — might produce the same results. Actually, just the French style of eating — slower, more relaxed — might account for some results that showed lowered levels of stress on the heart and cardiovascular system. Some researchers even went so far as to suggest that the basic premise — that the French have a lower instance of heart disease than, say, Americans — might be based on flawed studies and that, in fact, the rates of heart disease are approximately equal.
Still, more studies have followed with more happy news about the health-beneficial effects of moderate wine consumption. A quick Google of wine and health yields a gaggle of Web sites summarizing published reports that show wine associated with lower risks for heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, kidney stones in women, stroke, angina pectoris, upper-digestive tract cancers, type-2 diabetes, some forms of lung cancer, even dementia, all leading to longer life expectancy overall. And the study results have been published in some of our most prestigious peer-reviewed journals, such as the Journal of the American Medical Association, Journal of the American Heart Association, American Journal of Epidemiology, Lancet and Nature. The studies have been conducted in Europe, Asia, Australia, the U.S. and across the globe, involving many populations and long periods of time. The science, we’d have to say, is clearly there.
As for the properties in wine that might contribute to these beneficial effects, scientists are focusing most closely on compounds called polyphenols (including tannins found in red wines) which seem to interact with human blood chemistry and, under some conditions, act to prevent or reduce some forms of clotting and platelet accumulation which increase risk of cardiovascular disease. One polyphenol has drawn intense interest lately: Resveratrol is a substance that shows up only in red wine (found in grape skins and seeds) and seems to possess exciting properties, acting as an antioxidant and perhaps as an anti-carcinogen; it might, in fact, actually extend lifespan. Well, in an early study, it clearly showed life-extending effects on yeast cells and, later, lab rats, which caused quite a stir. Annoyingly, later reports seemed to indicate that humans would have to take in resveratrol in massive amounts (an estimated 750-1000 bottles of wine per day) to achieve similar results.
The buzz about resveratrol, before the later, more hesitant reports, raced some pulses. Locally, one large Oregon wine producer, Willamette Valley Vineyards, rushed to measure their pinot noir’s resveratrol content and print the percentage on their back label. Turns out, however, that the red wines that contain the most resveratrol come, not in cool-country wines like Oregon pinots, but in wines from hot, harsh places where the vines grow under stress; actually, the highest content of resveratrol might be found in the tannat grapes grown in places like southwestern France and Sardinia. Neither of those regions nor wines from that grape has been popular, but that could change in our health-conscious world.
Meanwhile, no one should lose track of the fact that, whatever the health hoopla, the most powerful ingredient in wine is still alcohol, and the simple fact is that, while most people might derive some beneficial effects from moderate consumption (up to two, perhaps three, glasses per day) of wine, especially with meals (another finding of recent research), some people ought never to drink wine, or any alcohol-containing beverage, under any circumstance. For some people, alcohol in any form is toxic and can lead to alcoholism, one of the most obdurate, dangerous and destructive addictions we know. For alcoholics, no amount of wine can be considered healthful. Note, though, that recent research shows resveratrol in alcohol-free wine.
For the rest of us, the research seems to indicate most clearly that the byword for the health benefits of wine, white or red, is moderation. One of the most striking features of all the statistical research is the U-shape of the curve showing benefits: moderate consumers do better than either folks who abstain or those who drink too much. If we boil down decades of research and add it to centuries of folk knowledge, what we get is fairly clear and straightforward: A couple glasses of wine a day with a well-balanced meal probably reduces risks of some diseases and increases probability of a longer, happier, healthier life. Oh, and it tastes good and feels good, in moderation. And it’s available without prescription. Santé!
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