We have spent a lot of time lately in wine loving countries from Hungary to Portugal and, of course, France. We have enjoyed a good number of lunches or dinners with a glass of red wine. While in Lisbon we became huge fans of the vast amount of different kinds of Port available there. It’s been said by the nebulous “they” that a moderate amount of red wine is good for the heart, but I have also read the same thing about beer. And where does white wine fit into all that? Let’s explore the claims a little bit, shall we?
Here is a quick overview of what I found:
- Wine (red wine is best) and, to a lesser degree, beer have been shown to help lower the risk of heart disease, some cancers, atherosclerosis, hypertension, some types of cancer, neurological disease and even type 2 diabetes when consumed in moderation (1 glass a day for women, 2 for men), thanks to their high phenolic content.
- Red wine has the most benefits, white has some as well, but a greater amount is needed for the same benefits.
- Antioxidants, specifically polyphenols are mainly responsible for the health benefits of wine and beer, but they may play a synergistic role with the ethanol in wine and beer as well.
- Other spirits have not been studied and there is relatively little information regarding their health benefits, if any.
A variety of studies have shown that in moderation (1 glass a day for women, 2 for men) red wine may help reduce the risk of heart disease, thanks to its high antioxidant content. Chronic diseases, like cardiovascular disease, are induced, partly, by high levels of oxidative stress. The antioxidants in wine help prevent oxidative stress and thus, lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. This review found that red wine has the most beneficial effects, white wine has similar benefits, but at a higher quantity and beer has a host of antioxidant activity as well. The review noted most of the studies had been done on red wine and fewer had been done of white wine and beer and almost none with other spirits. They found that wine drinkers had a lower chance of dying due to cardiovascular disease and a lower incidence of problems related to cardiovascular disease. Beer drinking was also associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease related issues, although it was not as strong as the red wine. When they compared studies red wines vs white wines, they found the red had significantly greater effects, thanks to its higher antioxidant content (about 10 fold the polyphenols according to this review). Red wine has more polyphenols than white wine as a result of macerating in the grape skins (the highest concentration of polyphenols are found in the skins) for several weeks during the fermentation process. The polyphenols in beer come from the hops (about 30%) and the malt (around 70%).
Resveratrol (the antioxidant that gets all the glory and takes all the credit for the health benefits of red wine) is maybe not as powerful as originally thought. A study published in Food Chemistry in August 2014 studied many of the antioxidants in wine and found caffeic acid was the richest and gallic acid had the most powerful ability to scavenge free radicals. The resveratrol (even added resveratrol) contributed only a small amount of antioxidant activity and they concluded that health benefits of resveratrol in red wine may be negligible. Another review article noted that a variety of polyphenols including anthocyanins, flavonols, catechins and even the resveratrol in wine all play a role and are stronger together. The went on to conclude that red wine may offer protection against cardiovascular disease, atherosclerosis, hypertension, some types of cancer, neurological disease and even type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome.
While the exact mechanism behind the health benefits is not completely understood, there is reason to believe that the antioxidants work in conjunction with the alcohol in the wine or beer. This review article found that the ethanol (alcohol) increases good (HDL) cholesterol levels, and helps prevent platelet aggregation. Red wine’s phenolic content adds additional benefits including lowering blood pressure, decreasing overall inflammation, preventing cell death and more. I think the important thing to get from all this is that drinking wine or beer in moderation can have some benefits and fits into a healthy lifestyle!
Other sources of antioxidants include fresh or frozen fruits (berries, including cranberries, melons, cherries, grapes, kiwis, citrus fruits and so many more are all great sources) and veggies (the darker the color the better- think spinach, kale, mustard greens, beets, winter squash, carrots, eggplant, peppers, sweet potatoes etc.), so if you don’t drink alcohol, don’t start just for the health benefits, aim to eat a variety of different colored fruits and veggies to get the most antioxidant bang for your buck! If you do drink, keep in mind that many studies showed a j curve- drinking a little lowered the risk of heart problems, but drinking a lot increased the risk, so be sure and imbibe in moderation!
Free Radicals– Free radicals come from many places, from the environment (rays from the sun, radiation, pollution, smoke and more) or are generated by the body as part of natural metabolism, illness or stress. These can be beneficial in the body in small amounts, for example, they trigger the immune response, but they can also be toxic. Oxidants are also included in this category, technically not free radicals, but they do have the potential to become free radicals. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals so that levels don’t get too high.
Oxidative Stress– When the level of free radicals gets too high, the free radicals bouncing around damage the body, this is oxidative stress and it causes damage to cells over time. The oxidative stress is a major part of chronic diseases like cancer, arthritis, cardiovascular, neurological and autoimmune disorders as well as aging. The body produces antioxidants to prevent levels of free radicals from getting too high. Food (especially fruits and veggies!) also provide antioxidants.
Antioxidants– these act as “free radical scavengers” that help prevent and mitigate damage by destroying free radicals. Both antioxidants produced by the body and ingested by food boost the immune system and can help prevent or keep chronic diseases from worsening. Polyphenols are a type of antioxidant.
Update: Since I published this post, this article came out- basically it says that there are no benefits to drinking alcohol at all. So, to be more fully informed, check it out.