(NaturalNews) Many health-conscious people wonder whether wine is a medicinal tonic that benefits their health, or something that should be avoided at all costs. Nutritionist Frank Cooper spent two years researching the subject of wine and health, and found many answers. He investigates the medicinal, nutritional, and environmental issues to do with wine, and the health considerations of the chemicals and additives that may be used in wine-making.
The journey starts by revisiting the French Paradox and why French cuisine is protective against heart disease. Professor Serge Renaud's paper, published in the British Medical Journal in 1991, helped bring wine into favour around the world. The good doctor, a Cardiologist working at the University of Bordeaux, reported that 2-3 glasses of red wine per day for males could reduce the risk of coronary heart disease by 40%. For women he recommended 1-2 glasses per day.
The American 60 Minutes Program interviewed the good doctor in 1992 and coined the phrase The French Paradox because the French had significantly less coronary heart disease than other western countries, yet consumed a diet rich in cholesterol and saturated fats. Also, the average cholesterol level of an older male in France is 235 mg/dl (6.1 mmol/L) and at that level, an American would be reaching for their Lipitor.
Scientists at the time claimed that the beneficial component in wine was the alcohol, which dilated the arteries and acted as an anti-clotting agent, and that all alcoholic beverages would convey benefits. But were these scientists correct?
Copenhagen Heart Study - Denmark
The answer was provided several years later in 1995 when the Copenhagen Heart Study from Denmark was published in the British Medical Journal. This was a study to analyse alcohol consumers of wine, beer, and liquor. The study tracked 24,000 men and women over a twelve-year period. The report analysed the death rates and found that only wine had a beneficial effect on reducing all-cause mortality. The Copenhagen Study proved that there was something different about wine. But what was it? What were the health properties in wine?
Antioxidants / Free Radicals
The answer came from American food scientists who were investigating 'free radicals' and antioxidants. Dr. Edwin Frankel and his colleagues at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Illinois and the University of California (Davis), had done considerable study into oxidation and the benefits of anti-oxidants. When oxidation occurs in the human body it can damage living cells. However Frankel's team observed that the natural chemicals found in plant foods were powerful anti-oxidants that counter-balanced the damaging effects of cell oxidation. In other words, oxidation is fine in the human body if there is a counter-balancing supply of anti-oxidants as found in plant foods.
So what are these chemicals found in plants? Scientists call them phytonutrients or phytochemicals and they are a general term to describe the thousands of chemicals in fruits and vegetables that give plants their colours, smell, and medicinal properties. Phyto is simply a Greek word for 'plant'. The green in broccoli, the blue in blueberries, the red in grapes, are due to different phytonutrients. Plant phytonutrients are a key source of anti-oxidants for the human body. Whilst the human body does have its own ability to produce anti-oxidants, the principal source of anti-oxidants is fruits and vegetables.
Frankel's team reported in the British Medical Journal in 1993 that the phytonutrients in wine, with names like Flavonoids and Resveratrol, significantly inhibited the oxidation of lipids (ie. fats & oils) and cholesterol in human blood. It should be mentioned that a primary cause of cardiovascular disease is oxidative damage to the artery walls caused by oxidised or rancid lipids and cholesterol in the bloodstream, causing the artery walls to become inflamed, leading to the build-up of plaque that narrows the artery.
I spoke to Dr Frankel, and to cut a long story short, the research conducted by his team explained why cardiovascular damage was greatly reduced in populations that consume lots of fruits, vegetables, and wine. That's because these diets are rich in phytonutrients and therefore rich in anti-oxidants to counter-balance the free radicals. For your information, red wine is a little higher in these phytonutrients than white wines, but white wines have the advantage of being lower in ethanol alcohol. The populations in France and Australia (my country) are regular consumers of wine providing a rich source of phytonutrients. It is therefore noteworthy that the people living in both France and Australia enjoy excellent longevity, and only the Japanese live longer. OK, that summarises the health aspects of wine.
Let's now consider some of the downsides of wine.
As a clinical nutritionist working with patients, I have noted many people who suffer from wine allergies. These sufferers restrict their consumption of wine because of headaches, facial flushing, sinus problems and other negative reactions.
Wine allergies can be linked to a number of chemicals that enter the winemaking process, and to a lesser extent, the natural chemicals contained in the grape itself. Since most people can eat grapes without a problem, it would suggest that the natural phytochemicals found in grapes are an unlikely culprit. Therefore the focus must be on the chemicals added during the grape-growing and winemaking processes.
Chemicals that are permitted by law for use in winemaking include pesticides, herbicides, equipment cleaning chemicals, and sulphite preservatives. No one really knows the exact part that each chemical plays towards allergies, and in any event, we know from studies conducted with phytomedicines (Herbal Medicines) that people react differently to the same chemicals. But at the end of the day, if you suffer from wine allergies, that is the only thing that is important.
The extent to which chemicals are used in wine-making varies greatly between wine-makers, so let's investigate the more common chemicals that are used.
Insects and fungal diseases are a major problem in most vineyards and they are treated before they cause serious damage. The solution is to spray the vines with compounds that destroy the pests, and these can be either organic or man-made pesticides. Some vineyards use organically-approved pesticides like natural sulphur and hydrogen peroxide as they do not leave any toxic residues on the grapes. However the majority of vineyards use man-made pesticides because they are more powerful, and require less effort. As a rule, man-made chemicals benefit the grape-grower, whilst organic pesticides are of benefit to the consumer for health reasons.
You should be aware that the grapes used in winemaking are not washed. This may come as a surprise to many people, who would naturally assume that grapes are washed after picking but prior to fermentation to remove all traces of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides. Sadly, that is not the case. The obvious question is "Why not wash the grapes?" Unfortunately this is not possible, as grapes are normally 'machine harvested' and the grape skins are damaged by the picking equipment and grape juice is released. In other words, the collection containers are filled with damaged grapes in a sort of liquid mush, and there in no way that the grapes can be washed.
Sulphur Dioxide, Sulphites, Preservative #220
Many people, including myself, are affected by wine allergies caused by the addition of Sulphur Dioxide. This is a chemical that goes under different names including "Preservative 220" and "Sulphites". These are all the same term for Sulphur Dioxide and it is the chemical that has been proven to cause most of the allergies experienced by wine drinkers. Note that whilst #220 is the most commonly used, any number between #220-226 is a sulphite.
As a simple rule, any wine that is capable of being shipped long distances and stored in hot tropical 40c temperatures, will need high levels of preservative sulphites to stop the wine from deterioration. Such high preservative levels can be a culprit in what we call 'restaurant syndrome' and most consumers have experienced the ill effects of a good night out.
Sulphites are measured in parts per million or PPM. In most countries a 750ml bottle of wine can have up to 250ppm of sulphites added, and at that level a sensitive person can expect a nasty headache or sinus reaction after just one glass. A low-sulphite wine would contain less than 60ppm of sulphites. Some wineries indicate the level of sulphites in their wines but these are very few. In the absence of any formal data, or expensive testing, I would suggest the self-test method for anyone worried about sulphites. What's the self-test method? Drink 1/4 of a bottle of wine and see how you feel the next day. Then lift that level to 1/3 of a bottle on another day and try it again. If you don't get a headache then stick with that wine for a while as it must be low in sulphites. You might even do this test a couple of times to be sure. If it passes the test, then buy a couple of boxes of that wine. In a nutshell, find a wine that agrees with you, and stick with it.
Oak – a potential problem for some.
During my investigations, I noted that some people avoided wines made with oak because it 'did not agree' with them. This is interesting because oak barrels have been used in wine-making for centuries, and wine and oak are synonymous. However there are several problems with oak.
Oak is a problem for sensitive people because it contains high levels of tannins that are the astringent component of most plants designed to repel insects and grazing animals. Tannins have strong chemical properties that affect some people.
Another problem with oak is that the insides of wine barrels require cleaning and disinfecting from time to time. Unfortunately this will require cleaning chemicals to clean the inner barrels and these are absorbed into the timber and will leech back into the wine later.
But it gets worse. Researchers in Europe found a chemical called 2,4,6-Tribromophenol in wooden wine barrels, wooden wine racks, and the crates used to transport the grapes. It's a chemical used to give timber 'fire retardant' properties and is used in furniture, building materials, and other wood products. Unfortunately, wineries source the barrels and wood chips from distributors who source them from elsewhere and the original supplier is often unknown. You can find more on a website called (www.panda.org) which is a global environmental group concerned with the degradation of the environment.
Currently there are no laws in place to preclude the use of these chemicals in the winemaking environment. So how toxic is 2,4,6-Tribromophenol? Well it's very toxic, because if you put a tiny amount into a large aquarium with fish, the fish will die. These chemicals are stored somewhere in the human body and disease may manifest years later.
What should you do? This is difficult to answer as no one knows how pervasive this problem is. I would be cautious about wine made with oak barrels and oak chips, unless you feel confident that the oak has not been treated with hazardous fire-retardant chemicals. Oak sourced from France is probably the safest. Alternatively, do what I do and drink unoaked wine.
Cork or Screw caps – which is better?
This is a winemakers' hot topic. But let me give you the story as I see it in the year 2008. The traditional cork as we know it, has been used for centuries. It allows the wine to breath, and helps the wine to age over time for those who like to cellar their wines. However it has a real problem. Cork is a natural product and can cause the tainting of the wine giving it a bad taste and smell. Statistically, it happens to 1-in-16 bottles which means that 1 bottle in every 16 is a dud. That's a very high risk especially if you have bought a premium-imported wine. For the technically inclined, it occurs when an airborne fungus combines with chlorine and becomes a compound called 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole, which causes the musty taste and smell known as 'cork taint'. Where do these chlorine products come from? They can be found in cork trees that have absorbed chlorine-based pesticides such as DDT, chlordane, and heptachlor.
The newer Diam cork developed in France fixes the tainting problem and is a re-manufactured granulated cork which has been sterilised with super-cold liquid Carbon Dioxide CO2 under very high pressure.
I personally prefer the screw type closures like the Stelvin Closure, as they create a perfect seal, and this allows the winemaker to add less sulphite preservatives. I personally don't like to drink wines that have more than about 60ppm of sulphites, and that's achievable with a screw cap system, but difficult to do with cork unless it's a Diam.
Does wine contain histamines?
This is a commonly held belief that is inaccurate. Histamines are molecules released by the human body when exposed to some types of allergen which might be pollen or dust, and that includes the sulphites in wine. When the human body reacts to an allergen like sulphites, the immune system triggers a cascade of events, and one of those is the release of histamines by the cells and tissues, which cause the familiar redness to the skin or results in headaches and so on. Histamines are a part of your immune system – but they are not in the wine. Some wines may contain small amounts of 'amines' but these are different from histamines.
Wine does contain other trace phytonutrients such as tannins, salicylates and other compounds, and there are some adult people - statistically around 1% of the population - who have heightened levels of chemical sensitivity. If this is you, then one option is to reduce the chemical load by drinking wine that is 'organic and preservative-free' and seeing whether this fixes the problem. It should be emphasised that there is a very small percentage of the population who suffer from life-threatening reactions to some foods and chemicals, and we are well aware of the dangers of peanuts to these people. Anyone suffering from these sorts of severe reactions should avoid wine altogether.
Supplements for the alcohol blues
One of the problems with excessive alcohol is that it causes us to feel lethargic the next morning. That's because alcohol overloads the liver, and whenever your liver is overloaded, your energy level drops. The Chinese realised the importance of the liver many centuries ago, and Traditional Chinese Medicine focuses strongly on liver health. So what should you do if you are attending a dinner function, where you may drink more wine then you should?
There are several things you can do that are very helpful for reducing the effects of wine. It is well known that ethanol alcohol interferes with a number of bodily process, and in particular the action of B vitamins, so it is useful to take a multi-B vitamin before or with dinner. Secondly, drink plenty of water to flush the alcohol and to hydrate the body. When you go to bed, drink another big glass of water. This should minimize any ill effects.
One problem in 'eating out' is the over-zealous wine waiters who insist on refilling our wine glass every few minutes. This means that you don't know how much wine you are drinking, and likely to drink more than you should. The solution for this problem is a simple method used by a business friend of mine who regularly attends business lunches and dinners. This chap drinks white wine for these situations and orders a separate bottle of sparkling mineral water. Then he regularly 'tops up' his own wine glass with the mineral water and this stops the wine waiters from filling his glass. He finds that this method allows him to drink lots of water, and only a little wine, and he can go back to work without feeling sluggish.
Ethanol alcohol and your liver
Wine contains ethanol that the human body breaks down to its primary constituent which is acetaldehyde, a chemical that is toxic in high concentrations. Acetaldehyde can diffuse across the brain barrier and irritate the membranes in the brain that lead to headaches the next morning. Fortunately, we have a key body organ called the liver that has the responsibility to breakdown the acetaldehyde and remove it from circulation.
At the quantities of 1-2 glasses of wine per day, the liver can generally clear the acetaldehyde without any problem, particularly if wine is consumed with food. Drinking adequate amounts of water is important because it helps flush the system and re-hydrates the brain tissues and cells. Alcohol does have a relaxing effect on the body and arteries which is considered therapeutic. It would appear that the overall beneficial effect of the phytonutrients, vitamins and mineral in wine, may outweigh the negative effects cause by the acetaldehyde by-products, provided you keep within the recommended consumption guidelines. If you are a regular drinker, aim for a couple of days per week that are alcohol-free to give your liver a rest. And anyone with an impaired liver should not drink.
Nationalities affected by ethanol alcohol
People from Europe, who have been drinking wine since 2000 years BC, have genetically adapted to ethanol alcohol. However certain populations such as those of Asian descent, and the original native people in the Americas and Australia, do not have the same genetics for the metabolism of alcohol. These populations have a higher likelihood of experiencing facial redness and flushing, heart rate fluctuations, and symptoms of reduced blood pressure. This is sometimes referred to as 'oriental flushing syndrome'. This is due to a deficiency in the enzyme that breaks down alcohol - called aldehyde dehydrogenase – and consequently acetaldehyde remains in the bloodstream at higher levels for longer periods. In other words, the acetaldehyde is not being removed from the bloodstream quickly enough causing the hot flushing effects. Rough estimates suggest that 50% of Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans are partially deficient in this enzyme.
Acetaminophen/Paracetamol and alcohol
Most people are not aware that the #1 cause of kidney failure in Australia is due to paracetamol (called acetaminophen in USA) which is a painkiller readily available in supermarkets. This "gentle to the stomach" painkiller is deadly to the kidneys if taken in excess. In fact, there is no other drug that has such a narrow margin between the effective dose and the toxic dose. In other words if taken exactly as prescribed, paracetamol has a good safety record. But if taken beyond its guidelines, then damage occurs. What is also not well known is that paracetamol affects the detoxification pathways used by the human body to breakdown alcohol, and therefore anyone concurrently drinking alcohol and taking paracetamol will be over-dosing on paracetamol. This can cause serious kidney damage and lead to kidney failure and ultimately liver failure. If painkillers are required, then I would recommend the herbal painkillers.
Vintage wines versus branded wines
It is interesting to look at the difference between vintage wines and branded wines. Grape production and sugar levels vary each year with the climate, and this contributes to the unique characteristics of vintage wines. Vintage wines are made using traditional winemaking techniques as found in France and the Mediterranean countries, and these wines reflect the characteristics of the year they were picked. On the other hand, there are mass-produced branded wines, and these are generally made to a specific taste so that the 'consumer experience' is the same every year. This can only be achieved via chemical manipulation using various additives and production processes. These branded wines require chemical additives, blending, and manipulation during fermentation to achieve the same taste each year. These mass-produced wines are overly processed and can affect those with wines allergies. To draw an analogy, you can buy quality bread made from just flour, water, salt and yeast; and you can buy bread that is made from countless ingredients and additives. You have choices.
How much wine can you safely drink?
One or two glasses per day are fine for most people who do not have a medical condition. A glass of wine is 100ml, so 100-200ml per day is fine for the average-size person. A larger person weighing say 180lbs (80kg) or more may consume 200-300ml per day. Remember that a standard size bottle of wine is 750ml (26 fluid ounces) so a quarter bottle is probably the right amount for most people.
It's clear when we look at all the facts that wine in general has a number of health properties.
On the plus side, we have a beverage that is extremely rich in the Flavonoids and thousands of other phytonutrients that provide significant amounts of anti-oxidants to assist our health by preventing free radical damage that is associated with heart disease and other illnesses. Wine also provides a rich array of trace minerals and vitamins that are important. There are also studies to support the fact that small quantities of ethanol alcohol does act as a relaxant and vasodilator to reduce cardio stress. In other words, in its purist form, a good vintage wine made using traditional wine-making techniques, and drunk in moderation, qualifies as a medicinal tonic that can contribute to our longevity as is seen in France.
Conversely, there is the negative aspect of wine. All alcoholic beverages result in the conversion of ethanol alcohol to toxic acetaldehyde in the human body that the liver must detoxify. This can be a problem for anyone with impaired liver function, or for people with a genetic background that is lacking in the enzymes needed to breakdown acetaldehyde. In other words, acetaldehyde remains in the bloodstream for longer periods which is harmful. And then we have the issue of agricultural chemicals, and the additives used in wine-making. As you can appreciate, it is preferential to drink wines with a minimum of chemical additives and made by traditional wine-making techniques.
I think we can learn from the French Paradox. A glass or two of good wine with dinner contributes extra vitamins, minerals, digestive factors, and greatly enhances the enjoyment of the culinary experience.
Remember, common sense should prevail before drinking wine, and those with a medical condition should consult with their physician, and pregnant women should not drink alcoholic beverages particularly during the first trimester. And remember, never drink and drive!
In conclusion, the decision to drink wine is a personal one. It's not a judgment call that any of us should make for others. The important thing is to be educated about what wine is, how it should be consumed, and whether you feel it's for you.
About the author
Frank Cooper is a Naturopathic Nutritionist based in Australia. He is the author of the book "Cholesterol and the French Paradox" released in 2006 that explains the reasons the French enjoy low levels of heart disease. His clinic is based in the Hunter Valley, one of Australia’s premier wine regions. For more information visit his website www.frankcooper.com.au or his vineyard www.monahanestate.com.au