Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A toast to health with champagne?

Red wine is usually credited with providing the health benefits of drinking, because so many of the compounds associated with specific biochemical properties come from the skins and seeds of the vinifera grape. Since red wine is made by fermenting the whole berry, skins, seeds and all, these molecules are extracted into the nascent wine. Resveratrol in particular is increasingly touted as the explanation for the French Paradox, despite mounting evidence that it is the combination of substances in wine working together synergistically that best fits the data. In any case, white wines and champagne get short shrift in the health story, but new evidence suggests we should take another look.

It is true that champagne contains relatively little resveratrol, the miracle molecule. But it does contain two other potent antioxidants, tyrosol and hydroxytyrosol. If you are a student of the Mediterranean diet, you may have heard of these as being the principal antioxidants in olive oil. Since wine and olive oil are both primary components of the Mediterranean diet, it is likely that these compounds play a much larger role than resveratrol, which is present in only small quantities even in red wine. This was confirmed in a recent study from the University of Connecticut, in which rats were given either red or white wine and then induced to heart attack. Both types of wine conferred equal protection against damage to the heart, via antioxidant reactions.

So let’s toast to the New Year with champagne, to health, long life, to friends and family, and to the poor rats who unwittingly devoted their lives to science.

Monday, December 21, 2009

What’s red and white and fights the blues?

Although the holidays are a festive time of year, for some it can be depressing. Those with drinking problems have a particularly difficult time, and I cannot in good conscience recommend alcohol as a therapy for the seasonal blues. There is some intriguing evidence however that substances in wine can help fight depression.

Two studies from the same lab at the University of Santiago in Spain looked at the activity of the wine-derived compound resveratrol, and a cousin molecule called “trans-epsilon viniferin” (which is 2 resveratrol molecules linked together) on release of the neurotransmitter serotonin. This is the same molecule that many prescription antidepressants target, and with both wine substances the levels of serotonin were elevated in the same way. Another target of antidepressants called MAO inhibitors, were similarly found to have a parallel effect from the wine derivatives. A limiting factor is that these studies were in brain tissue from rats, so it is a big leap to conclude that it will have the same effect in humans. However, we do know that resveratrol gets into the brain and has other positive effects so it certainly merits further research.

Although resveratrol levels are generally higher in red wines, white wines may have a beneficial effect as well. A study done a few years ago at a French laboratory evaluated the effects of champagne consumption in a set of human subjects. Interestingly, they observed that people tend to either have high or low baseline serotonin levels. In those with low levels (who may be at higher risk for depression) the serotonin levels were increased by more than 50% after moderate consumption of the bubbly. They also observed increases in another neurotransmitter molecule called dopamine, which may also have salutary effects.

In any case, the evidence suggests that if you don’t have a problem with alcohol, you should consider getting in the mood for some wine this season. Here’s wishing everyone a happy and healthy holiday.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

of wine and chocolate

What a treat to meet and have dinner with Fran Bigelow, founder of the famous Fran’s Chocolates here in Seattle last night. She is of course the creator of President Obama’s favorite chocolates, and her gray salt caramels are renowned. She is truly gracious, talented, and smart.

I enjoyed talking with her about the similarities of wine and chocolate, and learned a few things. I knew that dark chocolate and wine contain many of the same polyphenols, the antioxidants that explain why they are both good for us. There is a lot of scientific literature supporting the healthful properties of both chocolate and red wine. But what I didn’t know was that chocolate, like wine, is the product of fermentation. The polyphenols aren’t present in significant quantities until the beans undergo fermentation, before roasting and processing. They do however vary in taste by place of origin, just as wines are known to express what is called terroir.

Appreciation of fine chocolate has similarities to wine also, in that all of the senses are used. It has aromas, textures (wine aficionados call it “mouth feel”), and of course complex tastes. But winemakers are done when the wine goes into the bottle, whereas the chocolatier then goes on to create visually appealing creations. Both are of course best thought of as foods, and health foods at that, but wine frames the meal as chocolate completes it.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Why wine should be part of your healthy holiday diet

The holidays are always a tricky time of year for those concerned about healthy eating, which of course should be all of us. We gather around food and drink, celebrate all that is good in our lives, and toast to friendship and goodwill. And we hit the buffet, usually not featuring low-cal and low fat options, so it is no wonder that average weight gain this time of year in the range of 10-15 pounds is the norm. Fortunately, there is one sacrifice that we don’t have to make. Red wine might actually help minimize the weight gain and other adverse effects of high fat meals.

First the general advice: Scan the buffet first, before getting in line, so you can save room on your plate for healthier choices. Make portion control your mantra, and try for a mix of carbohydrates and proteins along with higher fat foods. Don’t deprive yourself of what you like, just don’t have as much of it. Another helpful suggestion is replace sweet with spicy.

Standard advice usually also includes a caution to keep alcohol consumption in check. This can’t be argued with, but several lines of evidence point to the beneficial reasons to make red wine your holiday beverage of choice. For one, compounds in red wine tend to help moderate blood sugar levels, a major culprit in weight gain. Wine drinkers tend to have less trouble with weight gain overall, and some recent research shows that it actually works at a cellular level to control fat metabolism. Fatty foods also do a lot of their damage by releasing free radicals into the blood stream, and wine works to counter this as well. And finally, while wine may not count as a low-calorie drink, it is better than mixed drinks both in terms of sugar content (none in dry red wine) and the way the calories are processed.

So enjoy yourself this holiday season and share some good red wine with family and/or friends. And come to think of it, Age Gets Better with Wine makes a great present.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Big Thank-you to the Indian Wine Academy

I'm just back from my trip to India for an international plastic surgery conference where I was presenting a paper, but I must say that one of the highlights was the opportunity to speak about my book Age Gets Better with Wine at a dinner meeeting of the Indian Wine Academy. A very big thank-you to Subhash Arora for the invitation and the wonderful dinner at Ciro Restaurant in New Delhi this past Monday evening. There is very sophisticated group of wine lovers in India to be sure. One member, Arun Varma, who heads a marketing and travel service company, even had me convinced that wine drinking could be incorporated into Ayurvedic medicine. Why not?
So what about Indian wine? It is a young industry, and there is a lot of potential. Growing regions in the north, where the climate is more temperate, are largely undeveloped but I wouldn't be surprised to see some really good wines in the not-too-distant future.