Page last updated: Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Red wine versus white wine - is there a difference in health benefit?
by Dr Philp Norrie MBBS, MSc, MSocSc(Hons)
Ever since Serge Reynaud's 'French Paradox' paper was published in The Lancet in 1991 wine consumers have had the mind set that only red wine is good for them. This article will show that it does not matter whether the wine is white or red as long as it is consumed in moderation and on a regular daily basis; then you will gain significant health benefits.

It has been well documented that consuming alcohol in moderation can reduce mortality from all causes by 30-50% (1) due, mainly, to reducing our society's biggest killer, cardiovascular disease by up to 50% (2) and cancer by up to 24% (3). It is also good for relieving society's other big disease group - stress related illness. Vascular disease occurs when bad cholesterol (LDL) is deposited in artery walls and swells up, eventually rupturing, causing a clot to form which blocks off the artery, and thus denying the tissue supplied by that artery of blood, hence it dies.

Alcohol, consumed in moderation reduces the bad cholesterol and raises the good cholesterol (HDL) level, plus acts as an anti-coagulant (blood clotting preventative). Good cholesterol clears away bad cholesterol from atheromatous plaques in artery walls and takes it back to the liver for re-metabolism.

Wine, in addition, contain substances called antioxidants which inhibit bad cholesterol from being incorporated in the artery wall. The antioxidants also reduce the damage caused by the body's free radicals (toxic waste products) which help cause degenerative diseases in the body such as cancer, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and aging.The benchmark antioxidants are vitamins E and C, but wine in particular contains the strongest antioxidants in nature called resveratrol, quercitin and epicatechin which are five times stronger than vitamin E. Frankel (5) has shown that no matter how much vitamin E you take, its antioxidant activity plateaus at 20%, whereas wines' antioxidants will plateau at 100% after a couple of glasses. It should also be noted here that the fermentation process of converting grapes into wine enhances the antioxidant level many times over, plus produces alcohol, which helps the absorption of antioxidants. This explains why wine is far superior for your health than taking concentrates grape extract which has been advocated by some misguided people.

Returning to the 'French Paradox'. Reynaud observed that the French, despite eating a vascular disease-predisposing cholesterol rich diet, have significantly less coronary heart disease than other similarly indulgent countries. The reason for this, according to Reynaud is due largely to France's high consumption of wine. Professor Reynaud advocates red wine especially, but in fact his paper mentioned alcohol and wine, and did not specify red or white wine.

Dr. Frankel's research has shown that red wine contains more antioxidants than white wine, with the amount varying according to the grape variety, region, vintage climate (summer rainfall increases resveratrol production in grape skins as it protects against fungal infection), soil, storage in oak (oaked wines have more antioxidants than unoaked wines) and filtration techniques. Professor Skurray from The University of Western Sydney (5) has also shown that fining agents effect resveratrol levels. Polycar removed 92% of resveratrol, casein, egg white and alginate also 'stripped' some resveratrol, whereas gelatine removed relatively little.

The relevance of this to the average wine drinker is illustrated when one looks at studies which compare red wine and white wine consumption and mortality in practice, rather than in the laboratory.

There have been several studies which show that either are as beneficial. In 1995, Vinson and Hontz from the Department of Chemistry at the University of Scranton published a paper titled 'Phenol Antioxidant Index:comparative antioxidant effectiveness of red and white wines' (7) What this study showed was that even though red wines had a higher phenol content than white wines "The white wines had a significantly lower 1C50" (the concentration for 50% inhibition of low density lipoprotein or bad cholesterol) and thus were better antioxidants than contained in red wines. The take home message here is that it does not matter what the total antioxidant or phenol level is, but how effective the antioxidants are at doing their job -in this case inhibiting bad cholesterol.

Dr. Jung et al at the University of Mainz published a research paper in 1999 entitled 'Moderate red and white wine consumption and the risk of cardiovascular disease' (7). The paper's summary stated 'white and red wine improved the antioxidant capacity in the blood. The sum of the changes in cardiovascular protective blood values, the 'protective wine score' which includes all parameters, showed a clear improvement in both wine groups. The scores for moderate wine consumption were higher than for water, and white wine scored higher than red wine. Systolic blood pressure reduced significantly in the white wine group and the distolic blood pressure reduced in both wine groups'. This study shows that the effects of both red and white wines are comparable and in some parameters white wine delivered even better results than red wine.

Across the Atlantic in the US, The Jordan Heart Research Foundation found that free radicals were reduced by 15% in red wine drinkers and 34% by white wine drinkers, while red wine drinkers experienced a reduction in the blood's clotting ability of 10% and white wine drinkers 20%.

So why are the antioxidant molecules in white wine apparently more effective than those found in red wines even though they are present in greater numbers in red wines? The answer lies in the research of Dr. Troup, a physicist at Monash University in Melbourne. Dr. Troup used an electron spin resonance spectroscope to examine the actual size of the various antioxidant molecules in wine and showed that those in white wine are smaller and thus more effective because they can be more easily absorbed. A biochemical analogy would be to compare the smaller more effective immunoglobin IgG molecule which gets to all the bodies tissues to provide antibody coverage, whereas the larger immunoglobin IgM is restricted to the vascular system for its area of operation. In a letter to the Editor of the International Journal of Food Science and Technology titled 'Free Radical scavenging abilities of beverages' Troup et al pointed out that 'if the health promoting properties of wines are related to their superoxide-scavenging abilities, then white wine is at least as effective as red'.

Thus it can be seen that it does not matter which colour wine one drinks as each contain alcohol and enough antioxidants and once you get up to 100% antioxidant activity in your body tissue, anything extra is redundant anyway. Finally it should be emphasised that antioxidants such as resveratrol are not exclusive to wine but are found in dark ales, stout and cask aged whisky too.

What does matter is that we are not side tracked from the important issue that drinking moderately and responsibly lengthens and enhances life, by which or what alcoholic beverage is better for you. Remember that all alcohol offers protective effect from coronary heart disease and total mortality.

References: (1) Gronbaek M 'Mortality associated with moderte intake of wine, beer and spirits BMJ Vol310May1995. (2) Simons L 'Alcohol intake and survival in the elderly: Dubbo Study: Aust.NZ Journal of Medicine. vol26 no5. (3) Reynaud S 'Alcohol and Mortality in middle aged men'; Epidemiology 1998, Vol9 no2. (4) Frankel E 'Red Wine Antioxidants and Potential health benefits' Address to the Society of Medical Friends of Wine. (5) Skurray G 'Wine Making Practice and Resveratrol in wine 1998. (6) VinsonJ and Hontz B Phenol Antioxidant index: Journal Agricultural Food Chemistry 1995,3. (7) Jung et al Herz/Kreisl,31 (1/99)pge 25-31.

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