For what seems like ages now, we’ve been told that having that single glass of wine a day is not only permissible, but likely good for your health.
At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear it called the cure for all disease.
Everything has a hype cycle in modern culture – especially health trends. They rise in popularity, then before you know it, they’ve declined and faded into the background until they disappear altogether.
But that idea of a healthy glass of wine has stuck around for quite a while. We desperately want to know that one of our favorite adult beverages is good for us. And it’s understandable: wine is delicious!
But, what if that’s all it is – an idea?
Countless health gurus have claimed the benefits of drinking red wine, but new research is starting to reveal how wine may be just another vice, not the life extending treat we’ve all wanted it to be.
As a fan of wine, I decided to set out to discover what’s really going on in my Merlot. Is it more than just an idea and really as wonderful as I’ve been led to believe?
Let’s find out…
What is wine?
The oldest known wine was 8,000 years old, made by Stone Age people in what’s known today as the Republic of Georgia. The delicious drink can come in so many different colors, tastes, and prices – it’s enough to make you feel a little dizzy and lightheaded before you’ve ever taken a sip.
Wine itself is simply the byproduct of fermented fruits, herbs, or flowers. The most common form of wine is made from grapes.
It can come in different colors because of the skins on the grapes and the varieties of yeasts it’s created with, red grapes can make white or “rose” pink wine, but not vice versa.
When you put a couple thousand grapes into a big vat, the sugar inside the juice is converted into alcohol over time by the yeasts coating the grape skins. Voila, a delicious alcoholic beverage is born.
A lot of vineyards do still use this natural fermentation process. But others have been using a whole host of other additives to change the flavors and textures of the final product.
What’s in wine?
Isn’t it disheartening to realize wine might contain something other than wine?
Unlike processed foods, wine producers aren’t required to put their ingredients on the bottles you buy in the supermarket. So you don’t always know exactly what’s in your glass of Cabernet Sauvignon.
Sulfur dioxide has been used for centuries as a stabilizer and preservative, and is key to the production of wine. But, the ingredients aren’t always limited to grapes, yeast, and sulfur.
Enzymes are added to speed up the removal of solid particles from the juice. Others are added to enhance flavors or remove the less savory ones. They can also be used to intensify the red coloring of the wine.
Sugars can be added to lengthen the fermentation process to make stronger alcohol content. And if the producer thinks their wine is too strong, water can be added too.
Sometimes, a reverse osmosis process is used to weaken alcohol content, or to reduce the volatile acidity of acetic, lactic, formic, butyric, and propionic acids found in the wine. This is necessary to stop wine from basically turning into vinegar.
The grapes themselves, when they’re being raised in vineyards, are often sprayed with toxic pesticides. Though, these rarely appear in dangerous levels in the wine itself and rarely raise many concerns.
Wine is definitely an interesting drink, with a lot of enjoyable variety. But, if it really could be shown to have positive health effects that would be a whole other story.
The real health benefits of wine come from what is found in the grapes themselves.
Grape skins contains antioxidants called polyphenols, which have been linked to stronger lining of blood vessels in the heart. Because of the role grape skins play in the fermentation process, these polyphenols are abundant in the end product.
The primary polyphenol present in red wine is called resveratrol.
Resveratrol itself has become a popular supplement for heart health because of the belief that is wards off heart disease. A growing industry has developed around the production of these supplements, generating $30 million a year in revenue.
Because polyphenols are found in the colored skins of grapes, redder wines have higher levels of resveratrol than whites.
Most of the research on the health benefits of red wine has been performed on animals, not people. Resveratrol was linked in mice to lower risks of diabetes and obesity, but the same outcomes have never been demonstrated in humans.
Resveratrol is also thought to reduce risk of inflammation and blood clotting, and because it’s a naturally occurring substance in grapes, people think it might be the real deal.
Researchers at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine found that resveratrol might help prevent age-related memory decline in rats.
A study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that resveratrol in red wine might reduce levels of dangerous bacteria linked to dental disease and cavities.
Another study found that higher levels of resveratrol in red wine could help reduce risk of colon cancer.
It’s even been claimed that wine could help improve balance.
However, all of these studies have one thing in common – they are looking specifically at the effects of the antioxidant resveratrol in large quantities. Unfortunately the body doesn’t process it in a way that would allow these quantities to occur.
A researcher named Jane E. Cavanaugh, Ph.D., found that the body absorbs resveratrol really poorly. In fact, she calculated that a 150 pound person would have to drink 700 small glasses of wine a day to receive any of these benefits.
I’m not sure about you, but I’m ready to call it quits for the night after only a few glasses.
The French Paradox
The ‘French Paradox‘ has been discussed for a long time when comparing diets from country to country and their varying health levels. While the French have diets that are packed with saturated fats and cholesterol, somehow they have unusually low levels of heart disease.
In the United States and the United Kingdom, consumption of these unhealthy foods are substantially equivalent, yet our rates of cardiovascular disease are much higher.
You know that mustachioed guy in the striped shirt with a baguette on his shoulder you imagine when you think of the French? Yeah, he should be nowhere near as happy and healthy as he is given his diet.
Researchers have been desperate to get to the bottom of the French Paradox, and the answer often proposed is their obsession with red wines.
But as it turns out, there’s no evidence for this at all.
Professor Richard Semba of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and his colleagues performed a study on 738 elderly people in the Italian countryside, whose diets mirrored closely that of the French. The volunteers gave details about their diets as well as regular urine samples for the researchers to measure their resveratrol intake.
Over nine years, they found no link between death risk, heart disease risk, or cancer risk in any of their subjects.
“The thinking was that certain foods are good for you because they contain resveratrol”, said Professor Semba. “We didn’t find that at all”.
As it turns out, the reason for the French having better health in the long run than other countries is because of their habit of maintaining a balanced diet, which is more important than any single component in preventing disease and ensuring longevity.
Professor Semba went on to say, “The story of resveratrol turns out to be another case where you get a lot of hype about health benefits that doesn’t stand the test of time”.
Remember: Wine is an Alcoholic Beverage
Because wine is an alcoholic beverage, doctors are hesitant to advocate wine as a regular beverage. Understandably they don’t want to be responsible for anyone’s alcoholism. And since alcohol use is the third leading cause of death in the United States, their concerns are highly valid.
But, because so many adults drink alcohol on a regular basis, there’s no shortage of funding for research into suggested health benefits of various drinks. Like wine, beer and liquor have also been touted as being good for you in one way or another.
Studies have shown that risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and early death are decreased in men who drink two drinks per day (for women, it’s one drink per day). However, drinking more than that amount for men and women has been shown to increase those risks, and it’s often hard for people to stick to just 1-2 drinks. You know what it’s like, you have one, and it’s often easy to have another one!
Wine is definitely one of the weaker alcoholic beverages, with an alcohol content below 16%. It’s impossible to ferment past this level, because the yeast would die and end fermentation.
Anything above that percentage (most liquors) is brought about by distillation, where the alcohol is evaporated out of the heated liquid, then collected and re-condensed.
Red wine proponents claim that wine is superior to these other alcohols. They say because it’s weaker, its negative effects are fewer. But at the end of the day, evidence simply does not support these claims.
A study published in the British Medical Journal analyzing the drinking habits of more than 50,000 adults found “little to no” health benefits, regardless of how much or how little alcohol they drank.
A lot of the supposed benefits from wine, especially those related to the antioxidant resveratrol, can be reached by simply eating grapes. There’s no reason to include the fermented, alcoholic aspect of the beverage.
While the odd benefit has been found here and there, alcohol has been shown time and time again to have negative health effects, for just about the whole body. Your brain, heart, and liver, pancreas, and entire immune system, take a beating practically every time you drink in excess – and it’s often hard to stick to those 2 glasses remember.
Maybe a glass of wine every night with dinner makes you feel better. I definitely understand how it can help you wind down after a tough day, but be clear – that’s because of its intoxicating effect, not from some instantaneous health benefit.
When it comes to alcohol moderation is definitely key. Addiction and alcoholism are very real, and any adult considering drinking on a regular basis should do so with extreme caution.
Next time you’re out shopping and are tempted to pick up a bottle of wine, keep in mind that the claims that it’ll make you healthier with every glass are pretty much nonsense. Don’t believe the hype – trust the research! And, if you want a guaranteed daily health boost, just eat an apple instead.