Wine, Resveratrol & your health

We have all heard that red wine is good for you, but is there one ingredient that makes all the difference?

In this article I will look at some of the discussion about the alleged "magic bullet" called resveratrol and other chemical compounds in red wine. Maybe we could just take a pill to get the health benefits of red wine without actually having to drink it (but this would take away all the fun and social aspects of wine).

Resveratrol is a natural compound found in grapes, mulberries, peanuts, and other plants or food products, especially red wine, that may protect against cancer and cardiovascular disease by acting as an antioxidant, antimutagen, and anti-inflammatory.

There is an important three letter word in that definition... may. "May" is a small word but it has significant implications.

More about Resveratrol

This compound became the focus of attention a couple of decades ago when it was found to have effects on the physiology of many animal species, including humans. It was thought to be the explanation of the 'French Paradox' that heart disease is lower in France than in comparable countries despite a diet rich in fats.

Elements of the research about resveratrol were reported on in the general media and the compound gained cult status. The news prompted a significant shift in the preference of wine lovers from white wines to red wines. There is now a large industry producing resveratrol pills, tablets and food supplements containing resveratrol, but there are doubts about their value.

However, new research suggests that it is compounds other than resveratrol that may be responsible for the health benefits of red wines.

What are its supposed benefits?

The health benefits of red wine in general, as found by a variety of popular research studies from over the last decade include the following:

· The "French Paradox" studies which illustrate that regular red wine consumption in moderation (2-3 standard glasses a day) appears to significantly reduce the risk of heart disease and other cardiovascular problems, even despite a high-fat diet.

· Lowers risk of Alzheimer's: several studies show that resveratrol lowers the risk of developing Alzheimer's, by reducing the levels of amyloid-beta peptides, which are responsible for the disease.

· Boosts memory: researchers at Ohio State University found that moderate amounts of alcohol - amounts equivalent to two drinks per day for a human - improved the memories of laboratory rats.

· Has been shown to lower bad (LDL) cholesterol levels.

· Anti-carcinogenic/anti-cancer properties: inhibits cellular events associated with the initiation, promotion, and progression of tumors.

· Contains powerful antioxidant polyphenols, which contribute to anti-cancer, anti-aging benefits including helping to fight heart disease, vision disorders, allergies, viral infections, and more.

· and many more not yet quantified by research, given that red wine has been deemed by many scientists to be one of the most complex biological liquids known, containing hundreds of chemical classes, many not yet known or understood, whose interactions between each other are subtle and complex.

Perhaps that's why red wine has conjured such mystical qualities for centuries; every varietal, every vintage, every vineyard, every bottle is different in sometimes subtle and often grand ways...resulting from the myriad variables that go into the wine making equation. And the variance in health benefits, particularly resveratrol content, go right along with this equation.

Many plant based foods contain compounds called polyphenols. These include tannins and the colouring and flavouring compounds found in wine, and many other foods. Resveratrol is just one of these. Many polyphenols have beneficial effects on human health, but sorting out just which ones are the most effective is just beginning.

Why the confusion about Resveratrol?

It seems resveratrol does have some of the protective properties attributed to it, but it is also now becoming apparent that other polyphenols, particularly ologomericprocyanadins (OPCs in short) give the most benefit. Both resveratrol and OPCs are present in red wine to varying degrees, but the OPCs seem to be the good guys that pack the punch. Red wine is a cocktail of polyphenolsandsorting out just which of the polyphenols are good for you has, so far, lead to the identification of OPCs as potentially being the most beneficial.

Which red wines are really good for you?

The good molecules are in the skins of the grapes, especially red wine grapes. When red wines are made the juice is kept in contact with the skins for days to weeks and thus the OPCs get extracted into the wine. The importance of alcohol is that it helps the compounds dissolve into the wine.

Research has shown that some grape varieties seem better than others. Tannat seems to be the top of the pile, but there are others, including Malbec. Tannat is the heart and soul wine made in the South West of France. Quite a few Australian wineries are also now using Tannat. Malbec is also making a comeback in Australia. Once used mainly as a blending variety, some Australian wineries are now using it to make varietal wines. Pinot noir has the highest levels of resveratrol.

Mixed messages

The moral of the story about resveratrol and other compound such as OPCs is that nutrition and the human body is not a simple subject. There are no magic bullets to stop cancer or reverse the ageing process. But there are many smaller things we can do to make our life longer, and more enjoyable.

Diet and exercise are both important. Diet is a long term process. Balance and diversity in diet are important, both for the long term benefits, and to allow you to maintain the diet over a long time.

Drinking a variety of red wines as part of a balanced diet is one way of improving your health, especially if you seek out the interesting varieties that have high levels of OPCs.

Other foods which are good sources of polyphenols include dark chocolate, most berries - especially cranberries, and pomegranate.

The good news and the bad news

Remember, resveratrol and OPCs are only some of the recently discovered components of the incredibly complex liquid known as red wine that has been shown to confer health benefits; there are likely numerous other yet-to-be-discovered chemicals and interactions produced by the red wine growth, production and fermentation processes that provide many other health benefits which (once identified and researched) will help to further explain why red wine appears to possess so many health properties.

First the bad news –it is unlikely Resveratrol alone is going to help your health very much.

The good news - there are many other compounds in red wine that are very good for youand it is possibly their complex interaction within red wine that makes them effective.

So, if you like a red wine drink in moderation.