This week’s wine focus is on health.
You are all aware of the study done in France in the early ’90s that compared French and American diets and health. Even though both diets were high in fatty foods, the French were healthier and living longer. Since then, in study after study, it has been shown that those who consume moderate amounts of red wine in their diet are healthier than those who abstain or those who drink to excess. Wine lovers can bask in the knowledge that, for once, something they enjoy is actually good for them.
The scientific studies all point to a singular element in wine that accounts for this phenomenon: a plant compound in the skins of red grapes called polyphenols.
This natural compound is an antioxidant that counters the natural tendency of the typical American diet to cause certain cells to multiply and mutate. When fatty cells multiply, they can lead to heart and other diseases; when other cells mutate, they can lead to cancer and other immune-associated diseases.
Let’s look at the underlying explanation offered by science on the function and impact of polyphenols. First, they reduce the growth of fatty cells in blood vessels, thus slowing the build-up of plaque that leads to the narrowing of blood vessels, which can then lead to heart attacks and strokes. Second, during digestion, when wine is absorbed more slowly, polyphenols interact with fatty food. Blood platelets that carry nutrition – and fatty cells – to the rest of the body are less likely to be affected by these fatty compounds when polyphenols are present in the digestive tract.
Here are a few health benefits of consuming polyphenols in moderation: healthier blood vessels, reduced coronary heart disease, reduced levels of ulcer-causing bacteria, prevention/destruction of cancer cells and a lower incidence of stroke. Truly amazing.
The key here is moderation. What constitutes moderation? One to two glasses of wine a day is acceptable, according to FDA guidelines. This equates to approximately 10 ounces of wine, or less than half a bottle. Anything more and the pendulum swings to the potentially unhealthy effects of wine (alcoholism, cancer, obesity, diabetes). And don’t save up during the week so that you can splurge on the weekends. It doesn’t work.
Do certain wines contain more polyphenols than others? Yes. Grapes with thicker skins, or which are fermented longer, will have higher levels of tannins, which contain higher levels of polyphenols. Phrases like “firm” or “concentrated” tannins indicate higher levels, while phrases like “soft” or “ripe” tannins indicate lower levels. It’s not a coincidence that countries with the highest rates of proven longevity (France, Italy) produce wines with two to four times the amount of polyphenols than do other regions. This translates to the dominant grapes grown in these areas – Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese.
There are other foods containing polyphenols that you may consider as an alternative to wine. Most notable among these is dark chocolate. One ounce contains as many polyphenol compounds as four ounces of red wine. The downside is calories; one ounce of dark chocolate contains more calories (138) than five ounces of red wine (110). Other polyphenol-rich foods are apples, pomegranates, raspberries, blueberries and walnuts.
For those who choose not to consume alcohol, fret not. Unfermented grape juice, notably from Concord grapes, contains a high level of polyphenols – almost 50% of red wine. The concept is the same as for red wine: the dark, thick skin of the Concord grape contains a high level of polyphenols.
Wine has been an intuitively healthy choice for centuries and now the perennially pessimistic scientific community has endorsed wine as a “natural” choice for preventing and treating diseases. But like everything else in life, moderation is the key. Consumers rejoice – healthy choices that are fun. It doesn’t get any better than this.
Nick Antonaccio is a 40-year Pleasantville resident. For over 20 years he has conducted numerous wine tastings and lectures. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sharingwine