Monday, November 16, 2009

more on the new French Paradox

I know we have covered the new French paradox recently but I came across a fact that put it into sharp focus: No country in the world has cut its alcohol consumption more over the past 4 decades than France except the United Arab Emirates, where even possession of alcohol is banned.* Even more surprising is that beer and spirits consumption has held steady, so what has vintners really seeing red is that the reduction is entirely in wine. Talk about a paradox!

Chalk it up to the disappearance of the leisurely meal. A key to healthy drinking is to consider wine as a part of a meal – in fact I have an entire chapter in Age Gets Better with Wine titled “Wine is a Food.” The average French meal is now said to be down to 38 minutes, barely an appetizer and aperitif before. And the French apparently frequent McDonald’s more than any other country in Europe. But others are taking up the slack: Spain formally classified wine as a food in 2003. And Spain has become not only one of the world’s great food and wine destinations, but a leader in the science of wine & health.

*From a chapter in Mark J. Penn's excellent book Microtrends.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The problem with resveratrol

We continue to hear a lot about resveratrol these days. If you follow news releases on wine and health topics (which I do so you don’t have to) it seems that all of the goodness of wine can be attributed to this miracle molecule from wine grape skins. It is a pretty compelling story when you look at all of the basic science research on the subject, which offers tantalizing prospects of a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, even the common cold (see below). But there’s a problem.

To begin with, scientists first looked to wine-derived compounds because of all of the data showing a correlation between moderate drinking and lowered chances of having any of the above-mentioned diseases. When researchers discovered that resveratrol activates enzymes called sirtuins that extend lifespan in certain organisms, the door to a whole new area of scientific inquiry was opened. What resveratrol does in a Petri dish seemed to explain the benefits of drinking wine, and so now dozens of manufacturers are offering resveratrol supplements as a way to get wine’s goodness without the alcohol. So what’s the problem?

The thing is, there isn’t enough resveratrol in wine to explain why wine drinkers are so much healthier and live longer than teetotalers on average. It has been calculated that some 200 bottles would be required to get the daily dose required to cause the same effect in people as it does in lab rats. And, as we have pointed out here before, resveratrol isn’t very well absorbed after oral ingestion anyway. So clearly there must be something else going on. Several papers do offer a possible explanation: when resveratrol is given in combination with other wine polyphenols, the effects are often multiplied. And alcohol in the right amounts has specific heart-health benefits too.

A similar thing happened with vitamins. Their discovery a hundred years ago was the biggest advance in nutritional science of the 20th century, as I believe polyphenol science will be for the 21st. But when vitamins were extracted out their natural sources (usually fruits and vegetables) and given as supplements, no benefits in terms of age-related diseases were found. That bears repeating: No benefits to taking antioxidant vitamins, period. The same may turn out to be true for wine. So just eat your vegetables and drink your wine.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Cold & flu season ahead: Got wine?

By all accounts, the coming flu season is going to be a doozy unless we all get our H1N1 vaccination soon. There’s always the plain old cold too of course. I can never remember whether we are supposed to starve a cold and feed a fever or the other way around, but new findings suggest that regardless of the symptoms, respiratory viruses can be kept at bay by drinking wine.

It’s not as farfetched as it sounds. A few years ago, researchers in Spain looked into the question of how wine drinking habits relate to the risk of colds. Their subjects were 4000 faculty members of five universities across the country, who were tracked during cold & flu season for the number and severity of illnesses. When the data was cross-referenced to drinking patterns, they found that consumers of at least 2 glasses of wine a day were only half as likely to contract a viral illness as nondrinkers, and the correlation was stronger for red wine drinkers than for white. What’s more, the duration of illness was shorter for those who did contract a cold or flu.

There are a couple of explanations for this. One of course is that wine drinkers may have other healthy habits that put them at less risk (researchers call these “confounding variables”) but well designed studies such as the Spanish one take these into account. A more interesting possibility is that compounds in red wine have a direct effect on cold and influenza viruses, and there is good evidence to support that. One red wine compound called quercetin was tested against flu viruses and found to be more potent than oseltamivir (Tamiflu®), at least in the laboratory. It appears that the effect is quite specific, by interfering with viral replication. A more familiar wine extract, resveratrol, has also been fairly well tested against cold and flu viruses and found to be effective (again in a laboratory setting.)

What hasn’t been demonstrated is whether these compounds have any effect in supplement form. Resveratrol in particular is better-absorbed from wine in the mouth than pill form in the stomach. So my advice is wash your hands frequently, stay home if you are ill, and by all means have a glass or two of red wine with dinner.

And look for my book Age Gets Better with Wine in bookstores soon, or on or now!