Moderate consumption of wine is widely thought to be “good for you,” decreasing the risk of heart problems, strokes, diabetes, and cancer. Drink more than this and, so the conventional wisdom goes, the alcohol in the wine will have deleterious effects. Notice that we have not defined “moderate” drinking. Governments in a range of countries have not come to any agreement as to what a moderate level of alcohol consumption actually is. Many persist in changing the recommendations, and most do not agree with each other. Such a problem could drive a person to drink.
In 1991, the investigative television programs “60 Minutes” did a feature on the “French Paradox:” the inference of which was that the French, who supposedly consume great quantities of fat, have a decidedly lower incidence of heart disease, supposedly because they concurrently consume a great deal of red wine. Sales of the easy-to-pronounce easy-to-drink Merlot went through the roof. The logic:
- Moderate consumption of red wine protects against cancer and heart issues by increasing HDL cholesterol and reducing LDL cholesterol
- Red wines have high levels of antioxidants
- the darker the wine, the higher the antioxidant content
- Red wines are also sources of resveratrol, linked to longevity and cancer prevention
The problem is that the logic behind this panacea does not take certain other French lifestyle factors into account.
- The French diet is rich in heart-healthy vitamin K2
- The French diet is rich in short-chain saturated fatty acids and poor in trans fats
- The French get most of the fats from dairy and vegetables
- The French eat much more fish than Americans
- The French eat smaller portions, more slowly
- The French eat much less sugar
- The French rarely snack between meals
- The French eat fewer convenience foods
- The French already speak French, and hence do not have to go through the emotional stress of trying to pronounce the language without seeming like an uneducated idiot
More recently, studies have appeared claiming that people who drink moderately have a longer life expectancy than people who do not drink at all. One obvious implication is that non-drinkers do not enjoy the relaxation and stress-reducing benefit of a now-and-then drink and hence worry themselves to death. The fallacy here is in the statistical base used. The cohort of non-drinkers includes reformed alcoholics and people who have been forbidden by their doctors from drinking because of various health issues. Both groups have lowered life expectancies because of variables unrelated to their abstinence. To arrive at a usable finding, the researchers would have to compare otherwise completely healthy non-drinkers against a similar group of moderate drinkers.
We know that excessive drinking causes heart and liver issues, cognitive problems like dementia, as well as social issues like aggressive behavior and drunk driving, but there is no substantial proof that heavy drinkers are more likely to suffer from cancer. Again there is a confounding factor in the statistical base. Heavy drinkers are much more likely to have poor diets and other lifestyle stresses. A greater proportion of them smoke, a carcinogenic factor that is impossible to pass over.
A person can become an alcoholic, or express alcoholic behavior, through the medium of any alcoholic beverage: wine, beer or spirits. Despite this, on a general basis, alcohol abuse is less widely associated with wine than it is with beer or spirits.
Now what about those red wine headaches? In the United States, many people believe they are caused by the sulfites that are necessary in wine to prevent spoilage. One reason for this is the fact that wine sold in the United States must be labeled “contains sulfites.” The actual reason this labeling exists is to protect a small group of people who have allergies to sulfites that can be potentially fatal. A little-known fact is that red wine requires a much lower level of sulfites than white wine. This is because the phenolic compounds in red wine are antioxidants and tend to protect the wine from oxidation. White wine lacks these phenolics and hence requires more SO2. These very phenolic compounds combined with histamines (and alcohol) are the actual culprits. On the other hand, these are the same antioxidant substances that carry the supposed health benefits. This author believes that the real culprit in red wine headaches is not red wine per se, but cheap red wine. Red wine that undergoes the (more expensive) aging process will undergo polymerization, smoothing out the rough phenolic edges, and softening out the wine in all respects. This is the kind of claim you might want to investigate for yourself next time somebody else pays for your wine.