Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Is de-alcoholized wine better for health?

Over the past few weeks there has been a flurry of news coverage over a clinical study finding that de-alcoholized red wine lowered blood pressure, but not whole wine. The usual interpretation was that wine without the alcohol was probably a better choice for health, with the blood pressure drop projected to equate to about a 14% decrease in heart disease risk. Supplement makers proclaimed that their wine-derived resveratrol pills were therefore a smarter choice, others concluded that grape juice would do the trick. But other studies out on alcohol found unique benefits, and as you have seen here before a broader view is needed in order to see the picture clearly.

As with most studies, the blood pressure experiment had problems. For one, there was no “control” group for comparison. But the bigger question always is whether these findings translate into anything meaningful in terms of overall health and longevity. It is not reasonable to assume that a single parameter such as blood pressure tells the whole story with heart health and drinking, even less so when considering the range of healthful effects of moderate wine consumption. What it does do is confirm that the non-alcohol components of wine, taken as a whole, have independent positive effects.

So what of the alcohol? Consider a recent study on the effects of moderate drinking on bone density (a measure of osteoporosis).  Using a cohort of 300 women with an average age of 67, a consistent correlation of alcohol intake and better bone density was found. These finding are in line with previous studies. Another study found lowered rates of rheumatoid arthritis among moderate drinkers. (In my book Age Gets Better with Wine I cite findings from a lab study showing how this might work.) The researchers concluded that this was one of “multiple studies that have shown that alcohol can have a beneficial effect on risk for rheumatoid arthritis.”

So even if alcohol does not contribute directly to heart health, there are other areas where it appears to provide benefit. Heavy consumption is well-known to increase blood pressure, but in moderation as in the study cited above it seemed to be benign. As with all studies occupying the media spotlight for their 15 minutes of fame, nothing here is as bad (or in other cases as good) as it sounds. I am reminded of Michael Pollan’s book on healthy eating called In Defense of Food, subtitled “Eat food, mostly vegetables, not too much.” The same could apply for wine: Drink wine, mostly red, not too much (and I would add not too little.) And by the way, grape juice is not just wine without the alcohol; it has a lot of sugar and lower levels of antioxidant polyphenols.