The Science of Wine

Updated: Oct 1, 2019

Authored by Piotr Plaskota


Preface: The legal independent drinking age in the UK is 18. Please drink

responsibly.


It’s Friday night. You have just finished a tough week of work. Do you know

what it is time for? – That’s right, take out the glasses and treat yourself to a

glass of Merlot. After all, not only do you deserve it, but a glass of red wine is

good for you, right?


Figure 1: Stereotypical French Food

This kind of information has been in the news headlines every so often and

gives claim to all kinds of health benefits ranging from a healthy gut, cancer

prevention and an improved cardiovascular health, amongst many others. 1,2,3


The aim of this article is to have a closer look at these claims and see if wine,

notably red wine, is all it is hyped up to be.


France is commonly thought as the wine capital of the world, famous for wine

regions such as the Aquitaine, Bordeaux and Burgundy. 3 The French diet is

thought to consist of a high level of saturated fat which usually would result in

increased risk to cardiovascular health, yet France has a low level of coronary

heart disease (CHD) compared to other populations. This concept is commonly

referred to as “The French Paradox”. Some studies have suggested that the

paradox can be explained by the frequent wine consumption in French society.

Most of these link this disparity to compounds found in wine called phenolic

compounds, most notably one called resveratrol. These compounds are not

evenly distributed in the grape, resveratrol, for example, is found mostly in the

skin. This is important as the preparation of white wine involves using mostly

the pulp of the grape, unlike red wine, so levels of resveratrol are much higher

in red wines. 4 You could think of red wine as the “king” of resveratrol. Quick

side note though, even in between different red wines the levels of different

phenolic compounds vary quite widely.


Figure 2: Resveratrol, a non-flavonoid polyphenol with phenol groups highlighted in blue

Dietary restriction has been shown in to help in extending life spans of species

ranging from yeast to primates. 5 While the application to humans remains

unclear the exact regimen would be much too strict to follow retaining a high

quality of life; mimicking the effects of dietary restriction has become an area

of interest of study. 5 Resveratrol is one such candidate, and has been shown to

improve health in some species including yeast and mice.


The same effects did not translate into human clinical trials. Despite this,

claims of health benefits relating to the phenolic components of wine still

persist. 6,7 This is not to say that some of these phenolic components do not

have a positive effect, but rather that further studies are needed to confirm.

One potential reason for the difference has been suggested to be the

low/highly variable bioavailability of resveratrol to humans, further studies

would need to be performed to confirm these details. 6 The studies surrounding

resveratrol do highlight an important fact; drugs can show a lot of promise in

the cell cultures and in animals, but the same effects do not always translate to

us. Human clinical trials will likely always be needed to ensure drugs are

working effectively.


So, if it’s not resveratrol that explains The French Paradox, what is it? Well, the

debate is still very much open. One suggestion is that the alcoholic content in

the wine itself has a positive effect on the body in moderation. These claims

are generally accepted to be true and the benefits include reduced risk relating

to cardiovascular disease. 7,8 One should note, however, that drinking alcoholic

products does increase risk for various other diseases such as cancer and liver

cirrhosis as well as, of course, cardiovascular disease at higher doses. 8 These

results do give some explanation to The French Paradox, but there is another

possible explanation as well, one of correlation. It has been shown that wine

drinkers tend to fall into similar categories relating to lifestyle. They often are

non-smokers who regularly exercise and even include more fruit and

vegetables into their diet. 9 Interestingly, the studies showed that the lifestyles

of wine drinkers are generally healthier than teetotallers.

To conclude, drinking wine in moderate amounts has its risks and benefits. But

if you are really looking to improve your health and reduce your risk of disease

maybe take some inspiration from the average lifestyle of wine drinkers – go

for a jog.


Author’s Comments:

As usual with these articles I have tried to concisely summarise some of the

studies I have read in the literature. This is only the tip of the iceberg but if you

find this kind of stuff interesting, I would recommend reading further. The

World Health Organisation always has lots of great information surrounding

the health risks of different substances. It even compares how men and

women are at different risks with things like alcohol so I would recommend

giving that a read for sure. If you do read any information about wine in the

news, see if they actually state the study they are referring to. If they do, give

the abstract or conclusion of the study a quick as this can give a lot of

information in a short period of time. As always, all references are given (using

Royal Society of Chemistry style).


References:

[1] The Telegraph, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/health-fitness/nutrition/red-

wine-unexpected-health-benefits/, Accessed 13/09/2019

[2] BBC, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-49480864, Accessed 13/09/2019

[3] J. Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition), Oxford

University Press, 273-274, 2006

[4] Winefolly, https://winefolly.com/tutorial/how-is-white-wine-made/,

Accessed 13/09/2019

[5] J. A. Baur, Mechanisms of Ageing and Development, 2010, 131, 261–269

[6] J. M. Smoliga, J. A. Baur, H. A. Hausenblas., Mol. Nutr. Food Res. 2011, 55,

1129–1141

[7] A. Artero, A. Artero, J. J.Tarín, A. Canoe, Maturitas, 2015, 80, 3–13

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0378512214002941

[8]World Health Organization – Data relating to alcohol safety,

http://www.euro.who.int/en/health-topics/disease-prevention/alcohol-

use/data-and-statistics/q-and-a-how-can-i-drink-alcohol-safely, Accessed

13/09/2019

[9] J. C. Barefoot, M. Grønbæk, J. R. Feaganes, R. S. McPherson, R. B Williams, C. Siegler, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 76(2), 2002, 466–472

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