Ah, the pleasures of life. Vegetables harvested from the garden, fresh cooked rice, tenderly basted meats, an alluring bottle of wine, and the glowing faces of friends and family. Drinking wine does not in itself equal good health any more than living on twinkies or caffeine. But in a balanced, healthy lifestyle, wine is an enjoyable accompaniment to excellent cooking and special occasions.
New studies continue to search for the reasons behind The French Paradox. Phenolic compounds in wine such as catechin and quercetin have cancer-blocking properties, according to the American Society for Enology and Viticulture, and wine also contains heart-healthy compounds such as reservatrol.
Phenolic compounds come from the grape skins, seeds and stems, and are concentrated in the wine during maceration and aging.
The phenolic compounds, tannins, and color pigments are most concentrated just beneath the skin of the grape. (If you open a dark colored grape, you will notice that the pulp of the fruit is pale-colored.)
Hearty-healthy phenolics are the most touted benefits of wine, but another study, performed by biochemist Carlos Muller of California State University at Fresno, measured levels of salicylic acid in various California wines. Salicylic acid, which is also the active ingredient of aspirin, is a powerful antioxidant which also lowers cholesterol and prevents clogged arteries. For this reason, many doctors suggest a daily dose of 30 milligrams of aspirin to maintain a healthy heart. Muller’s finding? Wine contains almost twice as much salicylic acid per liter as the daily recommended dose of aspirin—especially red wines.
Muller believes that the antioxidants and the alcohol in wine are a unique combination. As the liver detoxifies alcohol, it produces a molecule called NADH. Through another biochemical cycle, NADH restores the antioxidant capability of salicylic acid.
“In wine we have not only salicylic acid and other antioxidants but in addition a mechanism to recycle them,” says Muller.
A special report in the Tufts University Diet and Nutrition Letter discusses the positive aspects of drinking alcohol, wine in particular. The report pointed out that although alcohol may raise the risk of breast cancer in women, only 4 percent of women die of breast cancer, whereas 40 percent of women die of heart disease. The report suggests that women at risk for breast cancer may want to abstain, but women at risk for heart disease could continue drinking moderately for the heart-healthy benefits.
Moderation is always important. Like any alcoholic beverage, wine will affect your blood alcohol level. In addition, alcohol, like caffeine, is dehydrating, and strips the body of B-complex vitamins, which are necessary for efficient digestion.
One reason for red wine’s beneficial properties may be that it is produced from a “whole” food, using the entire grape, including skins and seeds. Refined foods like white flour and white sugar are damaging to the digestive system, creating a sort of “glue and wallpaper” effect in the intestines that blocks assimilation of nutrients, weakening one’s health and immunity. Health experts recommend consuming whole foods like wild rice, steamed vegetables and baked fruit in place of white flour pastas, breads, and pastries, and replacing white sugar with nutritious sweeteners such as honey and dried fruit.
Unlike distilled alcoholic beverages, wine is often considered a fermented food, in spite of its alcohol content. Fermented foods, including wine, cheese, and yogurt, have a long history of providing digestive assistance and important nutrients. Japanese miso, a savory fermented paste made from soybeans, grains and sea salt, is highly esteemed in Japan for its culinary and medicinal purposes. Miso soup is Japan’s traditional breakfast. Dr. D.C. Jarvis, who wrote a book on Vermont folk medicine, praises the use of fermented vinegar as an antidote to the typical American diet, which often upsets the body’s natural acidity.
It’s not surprising therefore that a humble glass of red wine can provide heart-healthy benefits and oxidants. Of course, no one should take up drinking for the express purpose of staving off heart disease. It is more important to follow a diet low in fat, drink plenty of water, eat more vegetable and fruits, exercise, and lose excess weight. Drink wine in moderation, but enjoy it to the fullest!