Page last updated: Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Wine therapy: your good health - EBC Congress address by Jo Williamson
This paper entitled ‘Wine therapy: your good health!’ was presented by Jo williamson at the 30th European Brewery Convention congress in Prague, as part of a session on ‘consumer confidence in beer and the brewing chain’.

I would like to examine why wine, when consumed in moderation, is perceived by both the consumer and medical profession to be beneficial to health? Why has the european beer market continued to fall between 1990 and 2000 whilst the european wine market has continued to grow? I will look at european beer consolidation and the growth of fewer beer brands in the context of european beer health and finish with some potential lessons the european beer industry can learn from the international wine industry.

I joined a well know international brewing firm Arthur Guinness Son and Company Limited in 1971 as an underbrewer. This was my first experience of working life and my first experience of the alcohol drinks industry. I was immediately introduced to the positive benefits of consuming moderate quantities of Guinness and soon learnt that part of the marketing strategy at that time was to promote the slogan Guinness is good for you.

“Guinness is good for you” was used in the first U.K. advert as a slogan from 1929, and export bottlers who opened up foreign markets advertised directly to the medical profession. By 1900 Guinness was selling its stout in bottle as invalid stout and this continued until the 1920s mainly in Ireland.

Right up to the 1980s there was a genuinely held belief that naturally conditioned bottle Guinness consumed in moderation was a tonic and a health benefit to the consumer.

Guinness was often gifted to hospitals as well as being prescribed by G.P.s to pregnant mothers, mothers who had recently given birth, patients recovering from operations and people suffering from feeling run down and low, as a pick you up.

When I left the production side of Guinness and moved into sales in 1976 some of my best customers were chemists who were stockists of naturally conditioned bottle Guinness.

During this period Guinness would invite medical students to the brewery for a tour and lunch as part of their on going strategy to continue the link between Guinness, the medical profession and the health benefits of the product. These lunches were always a great success and very lively affairs after the recommended intake levels were inevitably exceeded!

It was in 1960 that Guinness was challenged by a doctor in the U.K. courts under the then Trades Description Act to substantiate the claim that Guinness is good for you. Sadly Guinness were unable to prove the statement and therefore the claim that Guinness is good for you had to be withdrawn.

I recount these memories of only some thirty years ago to remind us that Guinness and many other beers were seen as a health benefit by the consumer and the medical profession. This sadly is no longer the case so what has gone wrong with the beer industry? Why today is regular moderate consumption of wine and especially red wine perceived by both the medical profession and the consumer as being benefical to health and especially coronary heart disease?

What then is the truth about alcohol?

In October 1991 Sir Richard Doll, professor of medicine at Oxford University, told delegates at the medicinal virtues of alcohol in moderation conference that “light or moderate consumption of alcohol reduces the risk of coronary disease”. He went on to say that “men and women who regularly drink small amounts of alcohol tend to have a lower morbidity and mortality from coronary disease and a lower mortality from all causes combined than those who permanently abstain”. This protection was evident at drinking levels of up to two drinks of wine, beer, or spirits a day.

It had taken 65 years for the truth about alcohol to be accepted. In 1926 an american biologist Raymond Pearl reported that people who drank moderate amounts of alcohol lived longer than people who didn’t drink at all and was the first to enunciate the ‘u’ or ‘j-shaped’ curve that is accepted today.

What it amounts to is that abstaining may be a health risk for certain individuals. Moderate drinking may be good for you, but heavy and binge drinking are definitely very bad for you.

In 1978 a young scientist based in Cardiff, Wales Dr. A. Selyn St. Leger carried out a random search for clues to the causes of coronary heart disease. By pure chance he was able to get details of alcohol consumption by country, split into its components, beer, wine, and spirits. He decided to break down the figures to see if any one type of beverage was better than any other. The results were astonishing.

When applied to coronary heart disease for men aged 55 to 64, the highest risk period for males, it was quite clear that wine was easily the winner. The traditional beer and spirit bastions of Finland, Scotland, USA, Canada, New-Zealand, England, Wales, Ireland and Norway had the highest death rates from coronary heart disease. The lowest rates of heart disease were the wine consuming countries,France, Italy, Switzerland and Austria. He concluded that if wine had such a positive impact on coronary heart deaths then it was more likely to be due to constituents other than alcohol.

It was two scientists at the Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology in Philadelphia, David Klurfeld and David Kritchevsky who in 1980 conducted animal experiments to compare the effects of wine, beer, and spirits in protecting against Atherosclerosis the formation of fatty deposits in the arteries.

They developed a food regime equivalent to the north american full fat diet! They fed the diet to 48 male rabbits for three months with the rabbits divided into six groups given respectively water, the control group, ethanol, red wine, white wine, beer and whisky. At the end of three months the rabbits were sent to heaven and their hearts and arteries examined. Fatty foam similar to the fatty streaks found in human arteries were in evidence. The scientists were surprised at the speed with which the north american-style diet had produced atherosclerosis in rabbits. One hundred percent of the control group and the group fed beer had developed fatty leisions in their coronary arteries. Those on red wines were down to forty percent and they therefore concluded that aortic atherosclerosis was significantly reduced by red wine.

The evidence that wine and especially red wine is beneficial to coronary heart disease was given a further boost in May 1995 when a paper was published in the British Medical Journal by a dane Dr Morten Gronbaek. The report was based on research relating to six thousand men and seven thousand women between the ages of thirty and seventy-nine over a twelve year period.

The report showed that nearly all the heart-and life-protective benefits came from drinking wine. It showed that up to a level of three to five glasses of wine a day reduced the risk of dying from a heart attack or stroke and indeed the less risk of dying of any disease! This report went a long way to explaining the french paradox which had hit the world four years earlier.

In November 1991 in the space of twenty minutes the wine industry was hit by something akin to a hurricane. Millions of north americans tuned into a t.v. programme the CBS news magazine 6o minutes and learnt for the first time from Serge Renaud a french doctor that in his view red wine was the most powerful drug yet discovered in preventing coronary heart disease. This phenomenen became known as the french paradox and sent many north americans to the liquor store to purchase red wine where by the end of the week sales of red wine were up a staggering forty percent. Never underestimate the power of television.

What then is the paradox? The french, particularly those living in south west france defy all the health rules by smoking heavily, eating large quantities of saturated fats and taking little exercise. They have one of the lowest heart attack rates in the world. In contrast, Glasgow in Scotland has among the highest heart attack rates in the world.

A woman in Glasgow is twelve times more likely to die of a heart attack than a woman living in Toulouse. Canadian and American males are nearly three times as likely to die from cardiovascular disease as males from Toulouse.

Coronary heart disease claims more lives in Canada and America than any other disease, up to forty percent of all deaths therefore it is not surprising that the CBS news programme had such an impact. Doctors refer the so-called “bible-belt” in Southern America where there is a high incidence of teetotallers as “strokealley”!

Wine, and red wine in particular go to work defending the body on two fronts. The alcohol it contains reduces harmful cholestrol and clotting agents whilst the antioxidants fight illness and even the ageing process. However the real secret of the french paradox relates to how wine is consumed. In general the french will consume wine slowly with their meal whilst both beer and spirits tend not to be consumed with food.

It must be stressed that it is the moderate consumption of wine with food that has the beneficial effects. There are many people in France drinking large quantities of wine each day which can lead to high cirrhosis and cancer rates as well as traffic deaths and high rates of suicide.

In recent years scientists have concluded that many human diseases are caused by a group of “free radicals”. These rogue particles attack healthy cell membranes through the process of oxidation. The best protection against these rogue particles comes from “antioxidants”.

Exposure to toxic substances will release free radicals, which is why smoking has a negative effect on the human system. The body has its own defence against free radicals. However, if the free radicals are produced in large numbers and swamp the body’s defences, then, the only answer is antioxidants. These antioxidants come in the form of vitamin C, vitamin E and beta-carotene.

A group of compounds called flavonoids first discovered in the 1930s also have some antioxidant properties. Flavonoids are found in tea, onions, apples and red wine. Red wine contains more than a hundred flavoniods but not all of them are antioxidants.

Work was done at UC Davis in 1993 which showed that in the test tube red wine could inhibit oxidation of the “bad” LDL cholesterol and that some wine flavonoids were up to twenty percent more effective at inhibiting oxidation than vitamin E.

It is generally in red wine and not white wine that the benefits of flavonoids are found, as the flavonoids are found in the skin of the grape. The production method of red and white wine vary as the juice is quickly run off the skins of white wine whilst with many red wines the skins are macerated for a number of days.

Antioxidants are unstable and in fruit and vegtables can be lost in transportation and storage, however in red wine they are preserved and remain intact. It has been estimated that two glasses of red wine may enhance the flavonoid content for a human by up to forty percent.

One of the most promising flavonoids discovered in red wine is resveratrol a natural anti-fungicide found on the skin of the grape. Resveratrol has been known for centuries in China and Japan where it has been used as a medicine. The resveratrol content of red wines varies dramatically by grape variety, geographical location and production method.

Resveratrol is more abundant in cool, damp climates like Burgundy or Oregon compared to warmer drier climates. Different grape varieties produce different levels of resveratrol. The “king” at producing resveratrol is the pinot noir noted as one of the hardest varieties to grow anywhere in the world!

Another antioxidant being studied is quercetin found in fruit, vegetables and red wine and also beneficial to coronary disease. There were, initially, some concerns that quercetin may be cancer – causing. If this was true it would have had devastating effects on fresh fruit and vegetable consumption.

Terrance Leighton, who discovered that quercetin does not give any evidence of gene toxicity but acts as an anticarcinogen, i.e is an anti cancer agent carried out extensive tests. Quercetin was found especially effective in stopping or preventing cancer of the colon when artificially induced into mice. It blocked the activity of compounds that promote cancer growth therefore turning off the cancer before it started.

Quercetin, unlike resveratrol is not specific to a grape variety. It appears that the amount of sunshine is the only factor in determing quercetin levels in the grape. The length of time the skin is left in contact with the juice will determine how much quercertin is extracted. However, quercetin at this stage of the process is inactive and is only converted to active quercetin when allowed to remain for a time on the leese, the yeast leftovers.

It is the flavanoids in the skins of red wines that appear to bear out the french paradox and the relative low rate of coronary disease in France. For a nation whose diet and lifestyle on the face of it leave a lot to be desired the french have over the years realised that moderate consumption of red wine with a meal is good for you.

Here then are some details concerning wine and in particular red wine. I have no doubt many members of the audience will be getting slightly hot under the collar and thinking yes but beer also has many positive properties including antioxidant benefits, complex B vitamins, folates, minerals and more.

Many people will say that it is in fact the alcohol which provides at least 50% of the health benefits attributed to wine and this is no different to beer.

This may well be the case but the important thing for the beer industry to grasp is that wine and especially red wine are perceived to deliver health benefits ahead of beer by both the consumer and the medical profession.

Why is this and what can be done to change the image of beer? One of the worst reputations beer has is of being fattening and causing the beer belly. I would suggest that this image is not helped when beer is often promoted to the consumer by large beer bellied, loud,well know characters.

The life style of the beer drinker and wine drinker tend to be different with beer drinkers tending to have a poorer diet to wine drinkers. It is therefore a marketing challenge for beer to become more aspirational to the consumer and to borrow some of wines positive images.

If we look at the European market over the past 30 years there have been huge socio-economic changes that have impacted on the consumption of beer and wine. In the U.K the market was dominated in the 1970s by half a dozen major brewers who also owned the pubs and off licenses where beer was purchased.

In the main these brewers were mash tun driven and the pubs and off sales the engine room for the mash tuns.

At the same time there was the decline and in many cases the death of heavy industry, mining, steel, shipbuilding to name a few. These industries provided the cannon fodder for the brewers mash tuns where consumers would replace the liquid they had lost at work by consuming large quantities of low abv beer.

In the UK in 1989 there was a change in the law and brewers had to release a number of the pubs they owned to break the monopoly that existed. This revoulitionised the UK beer industry and fast forwarded consolidation.

The pubs of the 1970s and 80s did not offer the consumer a market place choice and if wine was offered it was usually of poor quality. Was there any incentive for the brewer to sell wine? Some of the brewers did have wine interests but the mash tun was still king.

After 1989 a new type of pub started to appear on the high street. These outlets were owned by entrepreneurs who recognised they needed to meet the consumers needs. This meant improving the drinking environment and providing a range of different products including wine and food.

The type and mix of the consumer visiting the on trade was changing with many more females attracted to the new environment. The UK consumer of the 90s and 2000s is more affluent with more disposable income than their parents.

The growth in the on trade of the female consumer, with high disposable income, who was generally marrying and having a family much later in life, has had a big impact on the u.k drinks mix. this same female consumer is often the person responsible for carrying out the weekly shopping in the high street and therefore influencing the choice of alcoholic drink consumed at home.

During this same period of time another revolution was taking place in the u.k. high street where the consumer purchases their alcohol to consume at home. in the 1970s and 80s many of the high street chains of off licenses were owned by the brewers and therefore were also outlets for the mash tun. the brewery owned pub was also a main take home source of alcohol for the consumer.

The growth of the supermarket through the late 80s, 90s and current decade has changed the way the consumer purchases their alcohol. The supermarket is totally consumer focused and therefore will provide the customer with the product they want. This turns the mash tun philosophy on its head.

There were other important dynamics taking place at the time including the consolidation of the brewing industry especially post 1989 which has led to fewer breweries, a much smaller range of beers on offer for the consumer to choose and fewer regionally produced beers. At the same time there was a huge growth into Europe of new world wines made to meet the consumers expectations.

These factors, along with a rise in the number of positive television programmes portraying food and wine, have had a major influence on how the consumer now views beer, wine and their link to health. In the UK between 1990 and 2002 beer consumption in the UK fell by thirteen and a half litres per head whilst wine consumption increased by seven litres per head.

Wine is aspirational, has a clean healthy image, with the majority of wine drinking occassions involving food. The major wine brands have a range of products with a ladder which trades the consumer up to higher margin products and there is the excitement of a new range of wines appearing each year.

There is constant wine training being carried out by the Wine and Spirit Education Trust who have four levels for the trade to aspire to. Regular wine tastings take place for staff in both the on and off trade so the staff can recommend a wine with confidence. Wine is served with food in quality glassware and very often with a little theatre.

In europe some countries have been actively promoting beer with food, Belgium for many years and more recently Spain. In many Belgium bars you are given a beer menu not unlike a wine list and will often consume the beer with food and with the appropriate branded glass. Some european countries are much better with their presentation of beer to the consumer especially with food than others.

What then is the way forward for the beer industry? it has to be marketing led with a total quality package offered to the consumer backed up with on going staff training and sampling in both the on and off trade.

The beer industry will waste time and money by researching the health benefits of beer and trying to score points over the wine industry. The beer industry must get away from the beer belly image and make beer more aspirational to the consumer. There needs to be a major generic beer in moderation with food campaign over a minimum period of five years funded by the industry. The beer industry should learn from the Australian wine industry which entered the european market 20 years ago and marketed Australia and the image of Australia first and foremost. Australian wine and brands followed on and now Australian wine has a firm foothold in many european countries being number one in value in the UK

There is no turning the clock back for the european beer industry to the heady days of 1990 when average consumption per head was eighty-seven and a half litres. The european beer industry with the big brands needs to actively get together to change beers image to the european consumer and the medical profession. Between 1990 and 2000 only the Republic of Ireland with its 1990s tiger economy and Italy have seen a growth in per capita consumption of beer.

It is your industry and up to you as an industry to find the funds to change the consumers image of beer for the future health of european beer.

Jo Williamson was chairman of the Wine and Spirits Association after a distinguished career with Waverley Vintners (Scottish and Newcastle).

Reference: The Save Your Heart Wine book by Frank Jones.

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