Monday, August 23, 2010

Resveratrol: natural supplement or pharmaceutical breakthrough?

Before we delve into this too deeply, keep in mind that the answer might be neither one. Resveratrol, the antioxidant polyphenol from red wine that I dubbed the “miracle molecule” in my book, has had an interesting career. It first came into the spotlight in the early 1990’s following the “French paradox” story on the CBS-TV show “60 Minutes” as a potential explanation for the effect. Research attention ramped up quickly, and there seemed to be no end to the list of beneficial properties on health and longevity. The real breakthrough was the discovery that resveratrol was an activator of an enzyme called sirtuin, responsible for a specific metabolic change associated with dramatically increased longevity. Overnight an obscure field of biochemistry research blossomed into a massive supplement industry.

But an interesting thing happened on the way to the marketplace. The scientist who is credited with the discovery of resveratrol’s sirtuin-activating abilities, Christoph Westphal, parlayed the finding into a biotech company that was quickly picked up by pharma giant Glaxo. A more potent resveratrol derivative, dubbed SRT501, is being developed as a prescription diabetes drug, but the ability or resveratrol to activate sirtuins has been widely questioned and may turn out to be less than impressive. Sirtuin activators unrelated to resveratrol are the focus of development at Glaxo now.

Much of this came to light recently with the revelation that Westphal and a Glaxo director of development were peddling resveratrol online through a nonprofit organization called the Healthy Lifespan Institute. Glaxo was none too pleased.

So where does that leave resveratrol? Despite wide acclaim and marketing hype, evidence is still fairly scant that it brings the same benefits in a pill that moderate wine drinkers enjoy. Specifically, the promise of meaningful lifespan extension through sirtuin activation has not been demonstrated in laboratory animals other than worms and fruitflies. There are questions about its bioavailability – the absorption and metabolism in the body – and purity of the various supplements. Despite the thousands of research papers on resveratrol, much remains to be learned about how it works in the human body. Stay tuned, but for now your best bet is to stick with wine.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Is wine-fed beef a healthier choice?

Leave it to those crazy Canadians to come up with the idea of feeding wine to beef cattle. While so many stockyards are filled with cows standing knee-deep in their own droppings, bloated from a corn-based diet, these bovine bon vivants are sipping red wine and eating organic. According to Jandince Ravndahl of Sezmu Meats in British Columbia, “They moo at one another a little more and seem more relaxed. There are a few that lap it up out of the pail. After they've had it for a while, when they see us coming with the pitchers, they don't run, but they come faster than usual.” Do pre-marinated cows make healthier beef?

Apparently it is at least more tender and has a sweeter taste, though I have not had the opportunity to try it myself. I can however think of many reasons why it would be healthier. Pairing red wine with beef has a specific health advantage, in that the iron in the hemoglobin – this is what makes red meat red – is a potent oxidant neatly counteracted by red wine’s antioxidants. The fats from beef are also tempered in their cholesterol-promoting tendencies by wine polyphenols. Whether these wine benefits are enhanced by wine in the cows’ diet is a matter of speculation, but there’s more.

Again, this is just an idea, but wine polyphenols have natural antibiotic capabilities and so they alter the demographics of intestinal bacteria. With E. coli being such a concern this could translate into a real asset. Then there is the possibility that less stressed cows develop healthier meat, due to stress hormones or other factors.

There are potential environmental benefits too. One little-appreciated fact is that cattle are a major source of methane, a greenhouse gas, so there is a large carbon footprint from every steak and burger. Under normal circumstances, cows expel up to 50 gallons of gas a day, and one calculation puts an estimate of 17% of all greenhouse gas emissions from cattle ranching. But wine cows are believed to produce less methane (perhaps related to an alteration in their intestinal bacteria?).

I don’t know if ranch hands are about to morph into sommeliers, but if this catches on I propose that we update “caballero” to “cabernero.” What do you think?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Why the proposed ban on direct wine shipping would be harmful to public health

A number of convoluted laws came into place following prohibition, many of which are based on the same faulty reasoning that led to curbs on alcohol sales in the first place. Although wine remained somewhat available during prohibition (people took a lot of sacramental wine it seems), a ban on direct shipping to consumers remained for a number of years. These regulations varied from state to state, with many states allowing wineries to ship directly to their customers within the state, but gradually a system of reciprocity between states with such allowances developed and was confirmed in a 2005 Supreme Court ruling. An echo of prohibition rang out this year however with the proposal in Congress (H.R. 5034) to ban such sales.

Unsurprisingly, the bill was put forth by wholesalers, who would stand to lose by being bypassed. But rather than draw attention to the real reasons behind the proposal, the lobbying campaign in support of it trots out the same tired public health arguments that harken back to a bygone era. Children and minors will have easier access to alcohol, they say, and direct shipping encourages alcohol abuse. As if minors are going to order boutique wines from small producers, and wait a couple of weeks for it, all the while hoping it will be delivered while their parents aren’t home, and that the shipper won’t demand a signature from someone over 21 as clearly stated on the large heavy box also labeled “contains alcoholic beverages.” If you really believe that, I have to ask what you have been smoking.

So are there public health consequences to direct shipping? If there are, I would place them squarely on the benefit side. People who buy wine direct tend to be interested in the wine for its aesthetic attributes more than its anesthetic properties. There are cheaper and more convenient ways to imbibe. Drinking wine because you enjoy the particular qualities of the wine means that it becomes more like a food, part of a meal, a component of a healthy lifestyle.

More information and resources on this issue at