Thursday, December 14, 2006

Health Food?

~Two minutes after I submit this post I expect an email—maybe more than one email. It will be from my contemporaries and colleagues in the wine business, a group I believe that will hate me for this. But a recent story that reported on soaring red wine sales thanks to the latest report about resveratrol and its life-saving qualities compels me to say it: WINE IS NOT A HEALTH FOOD.
~Let's suppose for a moment that what researchers speculate one day proves true, that resveratrol can help us live longer by providing protection from heart disease, one fact may remain: the level of resveratrol in a bottle of wine probably won't do the trick. In the most recent studies, mice that were tested produced beneficial results only after consuming enough resveratrol to meet the equivalent of a few hundred bottles a day of wine. Lord knows as a young man I tried hard, but I don’t think I ever came close to the equivalent of a few hundred bottles a day.

Resveratrol is a chemical found naturally in grape skins. The reason it is supposedly found in higher levels in red wine as opposed to white is simple: reds are produced by fermenting as whole, split grapes with skins intact; whites are pressed first and then fermented as juice with no skins (that’s also what gives each wine its color). While red grapes ferment, the heat that develops from the process draws out more and more color and components from the skins, including resveratrol.

~In a number of lab experiments with mice and even fruit flies, over a two-decade period, resveratrol seems to show health benefits by acting as an antioxidant, which, as we supposedly know, is necessary to maintain good, clear arteries hence, a healthy heart, plus some stuff about not becoming obese, but I've written that information off completely...
~As we can imagine from the latest experiment, the good effects of resveratrol from wine certainly are far outpaced by the bad effects of drinking the quantity necessary--or even a measurable fraction of the quantity necessary. Yet that fact gets lost in the news reports and soon thousands of people too lazy to take care of themselves run out to stock up on something they may not even like.
~This nutsy stuff about people ratcheting the sales of red wine after a health news story is not a new phenomenon. I remember it happening in 1990, following a report by Morley Safer of CBS’s Sixty Minutes, a man who just happens to be a wine aficionado.
~Safer’s report was named the French Paradox, the paradox being that the French were believed to eat a diet much higher in saturated fats than Americans yet they seemed to suffer from fewer coronary problems. A study done at Harvard University proposed that the answer to the paradox was found in red wine—the French drank more of it than us and they benefited from those heart-saving chemicals.

Studies about alcohol and health have been ongoing for nearly fifty years. They show that the benefits of alcohol are only possible when it is taken in moderation and for that, a formula for wine has been devised. Only recently has the focus of alcohol and health shifted to wine and so the moderation formula is expressed as glasses of wine: two to three glasses of wine a day for the average man, one to two glasses a day for the average woman (the alcohol in a glass of wine is roughly equivalent to an ounce of spirits and 12-ounces of beer). Of course, none of us want to think of ourselves as average and so every study comes with a requisite warning.
Indeed, there may be something to heeding a message of moderation—Morley Safer’s report did not scream it out, but while the French didn’t die as rapidly as Americans from heart disease, they were dying from liver cirrhosis in much greater numbers than Americans!

~When Morley Safer’s report aired I was on the road as a wine salesman, in a motel. The following day, while on my retail shop rounds, I was in one store talking with the owner when a man interrupted us to be cashed out. He was holding a few bottles of inexpensive red wine. He left and two more were right behind him. After a few more of the same, the owner and I resumed our conversation. A man ran into the store as if he had a car outside with the engine running. Loudly he demanded, “I need six bottles of red wine.”
~The owner had never seen this man before so he naturally asked for the types of red wines and the price range preferred, to which the man replied, “It doesn’t matter. I saw it on T.V. and now the wife said we have to start drinking red wine.”
~"It's been like this all morning," the owner said to me while shaking his head.
~Over the past couple of decades we have been told that, generally, any food providing antioxidants may prolong our lives. I suppose that is a good enough reason to drink wine, but you should be warned that no matter how much or how little wine you drink each day, your exit will come sooner or later, and it can come naturally or it can come in the form of a Mac truck driven by an amphetamine infused cross country trucker who hasn’t seen his family in over a week. The moral: drink wine because you like it.

There are a minimum of three reasons to drink wine: first, the multitude of sensory and sensual pleasures in a glass of wine; second, the way wine increases the hedonistic pleasure of a meal; third, that relaxing buzz ain’t so bad either. If it turns out that wine does offer health benefits consider it a plus but don't consider it a reason to drink wine.
~If you don’t like wine, surely you can find another way to prolong your life, although I am sure that a case can be made that non-wine drinkers suffer the risks associated with “agita.”

~I usually rail against the inane government intrusion on wine labels, and I promise to tackle the GOVERNMENT WARNING on wine labels in a future post, but I have to admit that one regulation which I first saw as an intrusion I now see as a potential benefit for wine producers. The government forbids wine producers from making any claims regarding the potential health benefits of wine, either on the label or in promotion pieces. I seem to remember that we were once told that eggs would kill us and margarine would save lives; need I say more?
~In any event, wine consumption is neither about health nor about quantity; it is about quality—of life. If I live to be 100 or more I will die happy so long as I have lived the quality of life I wanted to live. Wine may be part of what can make that possible, but I wouldn’t bet that wine would be the reason for my longevity.

PS: My attitude about wine and health should not be construed as an endorsement of organizations like Center for Science in the Public Interest. The information this group puts out is more agenda driven and less fact-centric. The real scientists are at least maintaining objectivity.

Some studies: mice, quacks, healthcastle, australia, winehealth,

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
December, 2006. All rights reserved.

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