Page last updated: Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Do we need the alcohol in our wine? by Harvey E. Finkel, MD
There’s been a lot of talk lately about avoiding alcohol--the bête noire of many --while still preserving the health benefits of wine, a sort of having your antioxidant and not drinking it too. Grape juice, dealcoholised wine, and resveratrol capsules are being promoted as more temperate, more healthful alternatives to wine. Let’s critically examine what alcohol brings, particularly to wine, most particularly to the health of the wine drinker. It should be remembered that drinking wine, or any alcoholic drink should be for pleasure and relaxation rather than for any given health benefits however.

Alcohol, that is, ethyl alcohol (ethanol), contributes body and flavour to wine - and other naturally fermented beverages, helping to preserve and enliven it, and, through its volatility, enables the all-important bouquet to bloom. Medical evidence over the last 30 years shows repeatedly that alcohol itself accounts for at least 50-60% of the many and now-familiar health benefits of moderate wine consumption. Polyphenolic antioxidants take care of most of the remainder. Some of the salubrious effects involve a joint venture between alcohol and polyphenols.

Most of the studied health benefits of drinking alcohol in moderation concern the cardiovascular system, the heart and blood vessels, especially the arteries, which vitally supply the organs and tissues of the body with oxygen, nutrients, and defenses against diseases and injuries.

Moderate drinking appears to reduce atherosclerotic disease—heart attack, stroke, and related--by more than 40%, and probably alleviates the ravages of aging, diabetes, dementia (including Alzheimer’s disease), immune dysfunction, inflammation, cataract formation, and other degenerative diseases. Research also suggests that wine consumption might lead to increased overall life span.

Immoderate drinking, in contrast, damages many body organs, impairs health, hastens death, and fosters antisocial consequences. Alcohol is the only toxic component of wine, but, as with many things in life, it is a matter of quantity. Little and often is the take-home message as the antithrombotic effects of alcohol last for approximately 24 hours.

Recent research

Now there is additional evidence that alcohol can be considered essential to the beneficial effects of wine upon health, and, therefore, that efforts to eliminate alcohol are ill conceived. Research at the US Department of Agriculture laboratory, published recently by Chanjirakul, et al., in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, demonstrates that alcohol promotes the antioxidant capacity of berries, and enhances their resistance to decay in so doing. Also, it has been thought for some years that the alcohol elaborated during fermentation improves the extraction of healthful polyphenols from grape skins.

A “State-of-the-Art Paper” from the University of Missouri, Kansas City, and the Ochsner Medical Center, New Orleans, in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology of September 11, 2007, succinctly summarizes alcohol’s role in health when used in moderation. The paper cites J-shaped associations between alcohol consumption and a number of disorders, including coronary heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, stroke, congestive heart failure, dementia, and peripheral vascular disease, and death from all causes. The authors believe that alcohol confers cardiovascular protection to high-risk and low-risk men and women predominantly by improving insulin sensitivity and raising high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol). It is also associated with reduction in abdominal obesity, a distinct cardiovascular risk factor. Finally, the authors agree that a modest daily allotment of alcohol, particularly with meals, is best, but warn against the risks of binge drinking and abuse of alcohol.

The moral seems clear to me: spare the alcohol and lose much of the pleasure and healthfulness of wine. Just don’t go too far.

References

Finkel HE. In Vino Sanitas? 2004 Addendum. Washington: Society of Wine Educators, 2004.

Baur JA, Pearson KJ, Price NL, et al. Resveratrol improves health and survival of mice on a high-calorie diet. Nature 2006; 444:337-342.

Chanjirakul K, Wang SY, Wang CY, et al. Natural volatile treatments increase free-radical scavenging capacity of strawberries and blackberries. J Sci Food Agric 2007; 87:1463-1472.

Corder R, Mullen W, Khan NQ, et al. Red wine procyanidins and vascular health. Nature 2006; 444:566.

O’Keefe JH, Bybee KA, Lavie CJ. Alcohol and cardiovascular health: the razor- sharp double-edged sword. J Am Coll Cardiol 2007; 50:1009-1014.

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