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Revisiting Resveratrol: Where are We with Red Wine Research?

The assertion about the astonishing benefits of red wine has caught fire in the health, nutrition and anti-aging communities. Researchers discovered that making a convivial toast can lower the risk of certain cancers and heart disease, and further research into the compounds in red wine revealed its role in reducing blood pressure, relieving constipation, aiding weight loss, and even reversing the aging process. For those who enjoy red wine, this was welcome news. But it was also confusing – the implication that red wine was good for you went against most health advice about alcohol moderation and abstinence that had been dispensed for years.

The confusion was particularly evident when it came to cancer prevention. Cancer prevention experts caution that limiting consumption of alcohol is crucial for reducing cancer risk. Virtually all studies into alcohol consumption reveal a link between drinking alcohol and increased cancer risk – particularly breast cancer. But in light of the compelling potential effects of red wine, the question rankles: to imbibe or not to imbibe?

A Potent Potable

“The breadth of benefits is remarkable – cancer prevention, protection of the heart and brain from damage, reducing age-related diseases such as inflammation, reversing diabetes and obesity, and many more,” says Biomedical Sciences professor Lindsay Brown, author of the groundbreaking 2009 study about the effects of red wine. The list reads like a top ten of America’s most challenging diseases. Such assertions have brought the compounds responsible for these positive health effects into sharp relief. Red wine contains a complex mixture of bioactive compounds, but the antioxidant resveratrol was the compound that attracted the most interest. It quickly entered the spotlight as the compound responsible for providing wine with its life-giving, disease-preventing potency.

Resveratrol is a polyphenol found in the skins of red grapes. Other foods besides the grape and its popular by-product contain resveratrol, including peanuts, blueberries and cranberries. Research has revealed that resveratrol in these foods may protect the body from cancer by countering the effects of free radicals and preventing damage to cells. Continued research in mice given resveratrol has indicated it might also help protect them from obesity and diabetes, both of which are strong risk factors for heart disease. Consequently, and in some cases opportunistically, resveratrol became popular both in wine and pill form, and continues to be advertised as a long awaited fountain of youth.

Most recently, research from John Hopkins indicates that benefits of the long pour may hold up. Resveratrol, the study indicates, actually prompts cells to defend themselves, a discovery that runs counter to previous theories that resveratrol was “shielding” free radicals. The study also adds protecting the brain from damage following a stroke to its list of potential health benefits. Researchers have yet to understand exactly how resveratrol may be able to “jump start” this protective mechanism within the cells, but the investigation into the process has intensified.

Putting the “No” in Pinot

Along with dietary favorites coffee and chocolate, red wine seems to be in a push-pull purgatory when it comes to determining its status as a true health food. Are these indulgent foods intermittently hyped as healthy because we want it to be true?

One common argument against the benefits for red wine is that the amount of resveratrol that would have to be consumed to see the benefit is prohibitively massive.  It’s a common complaint about scientific data and its translation into the real world. Typically, research is conducted on animals, and resveratrol research is no different. According to the Mayo Clinic, a person would have to consume 100 to 1,000 bottles of red wine a day to extract the benefit. Even the most experienced wine drinker would capitulate. (At the same time, researchers involved with the recent study at John Hopkins speculate that “even a small amount may be sufficient” to “jump-start this protective enzymatic system that is already present within the cells.”)

In addition, a recent review by the Australian Heart Foundation of more than 100 international studies on antioxidants over the past ten years debunks the belief that red wine, coffee, and chocolate are disease preventing foods. According to the report, the evidence is simply not there. Antioxidants responsible for shielding (or prodding) free radicals are present in fresh fruits, veggies, whole grains, legumes, cereals, nuts, seeds and green or black tea – and those foods should be favored for preventing heart disease and cancer, the researchers say, not red wine.

Another obstacle to finding good health in a bottle of Sangiovese concerns how to capture and package its benefit. The market for resveratrol supplements has burgeoned following the news of its potential health benefits. Those seeking to avoid the risks of alcohol, not to mention the hangover that would result from 1,000 bottles of wine, have turned to supplements. However, last month, a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins recommended against taking resveratrol supplements as a result of another new study. The benefits, researchers report, are unknown, and it may in fact be “the alcohol in the wine that may be needed to concentrate the amounts of the beneficial compound.” According to the study, recreating these benefits in a lab would be ineffective.

Finally, the biggest challenge for red wine’s bid to be in the health food aisle may be the lack of support from the prevention community. No organization advises someone who does not already drink red wine to do so for their health. Besides the very serious social risks, drinking too much increases risk of high blood pressure, high triglycerides, liver damage, obesity, and certain types of cancer. For a healthy food, that’s a hard pill to swallow.

I’m Red Wine & I’m OK

It may be leggy and chewy, it may be woody and flabby but is it OK as part of a balanced diet?

“Real” food evangelist Michael Pollan suggests toasting to your health rather than putting a cork in it. Partaking is part of Pollan’s Manifesto, a go-to list of rules that includes his famous mantra, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” One of these rules addresses wine consumption and urges having a glass of wine with dinner.

Pollan doesn’t rely completely on the science to make this assertion, but on centuries of tradition and anecdotal evidence. While he doesn’t suggest that red wine is the silver bullet many have hoped for, he does put stock in the unique protective qualities of polyphenols in red wine – resveratrol being one. Pollan states, “Mindful of the social and health effects of alcoholism, public health authorities are loath to recommend drinking, but the fact is that people who drink moderately and regularly live longer and suffer considerably less heart disease than teetotallers.”

With this in mind, he includes a couple of corollaries to the raised glass rule:

1) Drink with food.
2) Drink a little wine a day, not a lot on the weekend.

Mr. Pollan, I think we know what you’re talking about.

Jeers or “Cheers”? Our Bottom Line

While the secrets of resveratrol are worth teasing out, the truth is, we currently have much more compelling data about cancer prevention and heart disease prevention that easily passes the straight-face test.

For example, The American Heart Association states: “No direct comparison trials have been done to determine the specific effect of wine or other alcohol on the risk of developing heart disease or stroke.” While they recognize some benefit from red wine in raising HDLs and preventing platelets in the blood from sticking together, they advise that those who engage in physical activity and supplement with niacin can enjoy even more significant benefits.

The American Cancer Society urges a healthy diet by eating the color spectrum. Cancer fighting foods can be found in the bright blues of blueberries, in leafy greens, and the red of raspberries – foods that support good cell functioning without risk. And, The American Institute for Cancer Prevention states that as many as 375,000 cases of cancer, at current cancer rates, could be prevented each year in our country through healthy dietary choices. In addition to the clear benefits of quitting smoking, eating right, staying physically active, and maintaining a healthy weight, can cut cancer risk by 30 to 40 percent – very compelling data, no trip to Napa required.

Finally, the Mayo Clinic advises those seeking the healthful boost that red wine may provide to drink in moderation — or not at all. The benefits of wine provide a media blitz, but the same benefits can be found in the skins of fruits and other foods.  Our bottom line? Enjoy wine with temperance if you drink it already. Then, devote your prevention efforts toward getting your daily recommendation of fruits and vegetables.

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