In recent years it seems we can’t visit the Internet, watch TV, or read a publication without some new study informing us that wine is in some way good for our health. According to a number of studies, drinking one to three glasses of red wine per day will fend off (choose one) various types of cancer, prevent a stroke, improve memory, significantly lessen the chance of a heart attack, reverse Alzheimer’s disease, and nearly all other sorts of ailments. It sounds suspiciously like the snake oil salesmen that crossed our nation over a century ago, moving from town to town, selling tonics claiming to cure whatever ailed you. Teetotalers must surely believe there is a conspiracy going on, no doubt promulgated by the wine industry.
We have learned a lot of significant things about the chemistry of wine over the past couple of decades. It’s easy to think of wine as just fermented grape juice but it actually has a much more complicated makeup than initially known and even now, we still don’t know everything about wine or the plants from which it’s derived. For example, we know that we can taste wine from some regions and clearly perceive minerality, such as the chalk or limestone notes in Chablis. But scientists have yet to figure out how a plant can actually take up minerality through its roots and vine and then deposit those minerals into its fruit. Some in the scientific community go so far as to claim that it’s an impossible feat for a plant, but that’s only because there is no scientific proof. Yet. Still, open a bottle of Chablis and tell me you don’t taste minerals. We still have much to learn.
The modern concept regarding possible health benefits of wine was introduced to our generations as far back as the 1970s and the famous French Paradox emerged from studies from the ‘80s. The French Paradox attempts to define why French people, with such a high intake of cholesterol and saturated fat in their diets, have such a low mortality rate due to coronary heart disease. This study started the avalanche of follow-up studies that have been popularized recently and may have been responsible for the so-called Mediterranean diet and lifestyle regimen of eating lots of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains, while also engaging in regular exercise and enjoying a couple glasses of wine each day. That idea doesn’t seem unreasonable in terms of benefiting our health. In the end, however, most researchers agreed that the results of the French Paradox study were inconclusive because there were too many variables not considered in its data.
There is also disagreement about the effects of alcohol and how many glasses (or units, as used in the UK) can be consumed, if any. The closest comport with contemporary studies prescribe one glass (some are okay with two glasses) of wine per day for women, and two (some are okay with three) glasses daily for men. Most all studies agree that binge drinking is a health hazard, which the Center for Disease Control defines as more than four drinks at a time for women and more than five drinks for men. One drink in most studies is equal to 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80 proof liquor (typically a shot).
But health studies are about as reliable as a submarine with a screen door. For years we’ve been told to eat margarine instead of butter, then we’re told that margarine is dangerous and to start eating real butter. We’re bombarded with messages that we’ll be buying the farm early if we eat eggs and then it turns out maybe not, or that coffee is killing us, then suddenly it’s not only perfectly safe to consume, but now also counts as part of our daily intake of water. Nearly every day we hear conflicting reports about our consumption of everything. How can this be? Statistics, we all know, can be bent to hell and back by the people responsible for creating the study. And those statistics aren’t always put together with a malevolent agenda but, rather, often fail to have a large enough group to study, or fail to come from a study that is conducted over a long enough period time to actually be conclusive or statistically reliable. Many studies are very flawed, yet we blindly accept their results over and over. Claims about the healing or protective properties of resveratrol, a phenolic compound found in red grapes, range from prevarication to wildly exaggerated with no empirical data whatsoever to support such assertions.
So here’s the real truth about the health benefits of wine: we don’t know if there are benefits or not! We really don’t have anything close to being dependable or trustworthy about the subject but the extraordinary amount of positive press and rumors about wine being healthy at least helps rationalize our enjoyment of it each day. I drink in moderation, not just because I like it, but also because wine (or other alcoholic drinks) decompresses me at the end of a hectic and demanding day. By adjusting my attitude daily, I can relax without resorting to other chemical means so by my estimation, wine definitely contributes to my quality of life. Doesn’t it? If in the end it turns out that wine has some health benefits then I’ll consider myself lucky and if it turns out the other way, then I’ll still consider myself lucky. Wine is too good to deprive oneself of it.
There are probably things we can do to improve our health and longevity in a number of ways but I doubt if any of it will be conclusively discovered for many, many generations. In conclusion, I would ordinarily recommend taking all of these studies with a grain of salt but, according to a number of medical experts, it’s detrimental to your health to consume any salt at all.
Photo: a page of Google search images about wine’s health benefits