Tuesday, February 24, 2009

French study says wine causes cancer

Just when we thought the issue was settled, a new large scale study from France's National Cancer Institute finds that even small amounts of regular drinking can increase the risk of cancer. In fact, even as little as one glass of wine per day supposedly ups the odds of cancers of the throat all the way through to the colon and rectum. Problem is, this study is so out of phase with everything we have been hearing about wine and health that it ends up confusing the issue rather than helping. Here's what I think:
The first key to putting this in context is to remember that cancer isn't the whole story with wine and health. Benefits in lowered cardiovascular disease risk, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis, and many others would vastly outweight the increased cancer risk even if it did exist. Secondly, no single study provides the definitive answer; in order for it to be meaningful, it has to be independently confirmed by other studies. This one is inconsistent with nearly every previous study of its type, notably statistics from the American National Cancer Institute. Cancers of the type referenced in the French study are known to have a high association with smoking, and a very large percentage of French drinkers also smoke, so it is impossible to tease out the statistical risk attributable to wine drinking alone with any accuracy.
There was a similar hubbub about a year ago when a large study from Kaiser-Permanente found that even modest consumption of wine increased breast cancer risk. Less noticed was a study from Japan published the same month finding exactly the opposite. I cover the reasons behind this in the next edition of Age Gets Better with Wine.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Are vitamins bad for you?

One of the hardest notions to shake is that taking antioxidant vitamins (A, C, and E) will reduce the chances of developing what we call "degenerative" diseases: things like cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer's. We all know that antioxidants are good for us, because the oxidation theory of aging--free radical molecules wreaking havoc on our DNA--is so well accepted. But studies keep throwing cold water on the idea that vitamins are the key. The latest is a study from the Fred Hutchinson cancer center here in Seattle, out this past weekend. This study, called VITAL (VITamins And Lifestyle) looked at not just the traditional vitamin supplements but also lutein and lycopene. Across most categories, cancer risk was actually higher in those using supplements. This is consistent with many previous studies but somehow vitamin sales seem to be unaffected.
So what does this have to do with wine? Recall the whole wine and health story started with the identification of what we now know as the Mediterranean Diet, which includes healthy servings of fruits and vegetables. Initially it was believed that the antioxidant vitamins in the diet were the key to its relationship to lower risk of degenerative diseases, but the studies conducted to confirm this found no benefit to vitamin supplements. Only then did attention turn to the role of daily, moderate wine consumption. When this variable was independently studied, the health benefits of wine began to be appreciated. We now know that the antioxidants in wine (such as resveratrol) are much more potent, but we also know that they aren't the whole story. So spend your money on a bottle of good red wine instead of a bottle of vitamins.