For more than 20 years, red wine and heart health have been walking hand in hand, as supposedly red wine protects you from “bad” cholesterol, artery damage and other heart diseases. How much fact really is behind these claims?
What Is Red Wine?
Stupid question, you might think. Everybody knows what red wine is: a red liquid made from grapes, with a moderate amount of alcohol in it, sometimes sold for ridiculous prices to people who will then tell you that there is as taste of “raspberry on the palate” and some “freshly mown grass” in the “finish”. I’m not making this up.
Seriously, people have been fermenting grapes to produce an alcoholic beverage for thousands of years and almost equally as long wine was given a medicinal role. Already more than 4,000 years ago, Sumerian tablets talked about it, the Greek physician Hippocrates wrote a long treaty about the health benefits and Roman physician Aelius Galenus, when employed at a gladiator school, used it for disinfecting wounds, having only four of his patients die during his four year stint, where his predecessor lost 60.
The “French Paradox”
With that kind of pedigree, one wonders why red wine’s health claims had ever fallen out of favor.
The reason was the looming threat of alcoholism, that during the 1890s became widely recognized as a form of illness. From the late 19th to the late 20th century, if you outed yourself as a regular wine drinker, you could find yourself labeled as a potential alcoholic pretty quickly. Heck, in the US things for a while even went as far as banning alcohol outright (which unfortunately turned into what practically was a government-funded economic development program for organized crime).
To the rescue of America’s image of wine as a medicinal aid came none other than news magazine 60 Minutes, that in 1991 aired a broadcast talking about the “French Paradox”: the French having low occurrences of heart disease, despite practically gorging themselves in everything – from loads of fat to loads of dairy – that apparently made Americans ill.
In the broadcast, Bordeaux scientist Serge Renaud formulated a theory that probably brought tears of joy to the entire Napa Valley and Sonoma County: Renaud believed that moderate consumption of red wine was at the core of the French’s better health. After this 60 Minutes episode aired, red wine sales in the U.S. rose by 44%.
Platelet Activity And Resveratrol
Now we could be lazy gits and simply dismiss Mr. Renaud’s claims with the fact that he is living and conducting his research precisely in the French region that benefits most from increased wine sales, but we don’t, because that would be shoddy. Instead we take a look at his scientific backing.
Renaud first wrote about his thesis in a 1992 article, saying that red wine lowers platelet activity, which can help against clots building up in arteries. Renaud claimed that through this effect, red wine could reduce the risk of coronary heart disease by 40 percent, when consumed in “moderate” amounts.
Having struck on a sore spot – the discrepancy between the apparently bad eating habits of the French and their yet good health – other researchers got interested and conducted studies of their own. Many found that there indeed was a connection between red wine and heart health, and it looked like only the mechanism through which red wine achieved the effect needed to be identified.
One likely candidate was soon found: resveratrol, an organic compound that occurs in many plants, but especially in the skins of red grapes. For plants resveratrol acts like an antimicrobial drug, that protects them from bacteria, fungi and other diseases. When animal studies were conducted, it was found to potentially protect against cancer, have antioxidant properties better than vitamin C and help prevent atherosclerosis.
The Other Side Of The Medal
At this point it might look like we could as well finish the article. Case proven and we should all have our red wine, right? Not quiet, because so far we haven’t examined a side that wasn’t given nearly as much media coverage since that fateful 60 Minutes segment.
First of all, Renaud’s and the other studies were correlational, meaning researchers looked at groups of people from different social backgrounds and often were unable to clearly tell what is cause and what is effect in these people’s habits and health.
That some may have gotten it wrong was shown in 2010, when French researchers looked at the drinking habits of almost 150,000 people. They indeed found that moderate wine consumption was connected to less heart disease, lower rates of obesity, better cholesterol levels and lower blood pressure. But it wasn’t the wine that was responsible for the better health – it was the higher social status of the wine drinkers. Drinking moderate amounts of red wine, they found, was a habit of healthy people with well paid jobs and a good education. It was not the wine that made them healthy, they were healthy in the first place.
Second, despite a multitude of studies showing positive effects of resveratrol, all these studies were done on animals. There so far is no research showing that the same effects will happen in humans. For that matter, nobody knows either if consuming huge amounts of resveratrol could have adverse effects.
When In Paris, Do As…
Therefore, if wine, or for that matter, reservatrol, has any positive effects on human health needs more research. Research where any outside factors are fully controlled.
Nonetheless, in the past the French really did suffer from fewer heart attacks and other cardiovascular diseases. But the reason why may be very, very simple: they consume fewer calories and move more than the typical American, and as a result suffer from obesity and its related illnesses far less often. Whenever the French stray away from these two health pillars they get as fat as any other population and suffer from the same maladies. Red wine or not.