Friday, December 30, 2011

Is it all lifestyle or is wine the key to health? New studies considered.

Much has been made of the recent report from a 20-year study from Harvard that apparently found that it is the lifestyle choices made by wine drinkers, not the wine itself, that is responsible for longer and healthier lives. Following more than 800 people over the age of 55, the researchers found that it was the pattern of moderate drinking and associated lifestyle factors that most closely correlated to health and longevity.

Taken at face value, this study would appear to turn the French paradox on its head. But wasn’t the French paradox defined by heart health despite the unhealthy habits of the French? If that is so, then the findings from the Harvard researchers need to be reconsidered in a new light. On the one hand, it is widely known that aside from the French with their Galoises and penchant for fois gras, wine drinkers do tend to have healthier habits; we are better educated, we exercise more, and eat better. On the other hand, the French paradox – which is supported by substantial statistical data – suggests that there must be something special in the wine after all.

Sorting all of this out becomes tricky, because it isn’t simply all one or all the other. Positive lifestyle factors associated with moderate wine drinking do make a contribution, as this latest study suggests. There are numerous problems with these types of studies, such as self-reporting bias (which we have detailed here before), but the clear message to be drawn is that whatever benefits wine contributes to health and longevity aren’t reducible to biochemistry. It demonstrates that wine consumption with meals, on a consistent basis as an integral part of the lifestyle is where the chips begin to stack up. It underscores the role of alcohol, whether due to its salutary effects on cholesterol profiles or its ability to relax and unite around the dinner table.

So again we see that resveratrol isn’t the explanation, supplements aren’t likely to deliver the same benefits as a glass of wine with dinner, and health and happiness derive from a way of living. With that in mind, let’s all resolve as the new year begins to relax, savor the company of good friends and the joys of good wine. Cheers!
A more detailed critique of the research here.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The biggest myths about wine and health

Just when it seems that people are starting to catch on about the wine and health story, along come the naysayers to muddy the waters with out of date and disproven assumptions. True, a lot of what I am about to cover here is counterintuitive and goes against longstanding beliefs, but it’s a matter of science. Like Lt. Joe Friday used to say in the 50’s TV series Dragnet, it’s “just the facts, ma’am.”

Myth #1.  Alcohol abuse is the biggest cause of liver disease. We all know that alcohol leads to cirrhosis of the liver right? It turns out that by far the largest cause of liver failure in developed countries is Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease, or NAFLD. What’s more – and here’s the interesting part – wine seems to have a protective effect against NAFLD. The key here if course is amount, so as with all things wine and health, we are talking about a glass or two of red wine with dinner.

Myth #2. Alcohol destroys brain cells. While technically it may be true that alcohol is toxic to neural tissues, the presumption that any level of drinking is bad for the brain is not. In fact, one of the more surprising revelations to come from the research on wine and health is that cognitive function is objectively better in wine drinkers as they age compared to nondrinkers. This has been a remarkably consistent finding. So drinking –wine, at least – is good for the brain.

Myth #3. Any “French Paradox” benefit to heart disease from wine is nullified by alcohol’s contribution to high blood pressure. While not as widely discussed, this one has been a sort of trump card for the anti-alcohol group since it is well known that alcohol consumption contributes to hypertension. However, it has been confirmed that the heart health benefit still holds even among hypertensives – those who already have high blood pressure.

Myth #4. Wine’s benefits are all due to resveratrol, so you are better off taking a pill and skipping the alcohol.  This is an interesting conclusion but widely held even among “experts.” Resveratrol is indeed a remarkable substance, and wine is the best natural dietary source of this potent antioxidant. (That’s why I have a whole chapter on resveratrol in my book.) But while wine has been shown to have a multitude of benefits, there isn’t actually very much resveratrol in wine, at least compared to the amounts used in laboratory studies. So wine’s benefits by definition have to be mostly from something else.

Myth #5. Wine is empty calories and causes weight gain. Not so fast – red wine’s calories are all from alcohol, which is metabolized differently than carbohydrates so it doesn’t cause the spike in blood sugar. Wine drinkers overall have much lower rates of obesity, and while the polyphenol compounds that make wine red may not have calories, they are important components of a healthy diet.

So a toast to your health this Holiday season, and may you have a guilt-free indulgence or two.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Wine and friendship in Spain - a healthy experience

Is there anything more beautiful in life than the joys of breaking bread and sharing wine and food around the table with friends? As I have written here before, there is some scientific evidence of the health benefits of wine with food and companionship, and it helps to explain why wine’s anti-aging properties can’t be reduced to biochemistry and put into a pill. So with that in mind, let me express thanks to some new friends in Spain from my visit to Madrid and the Ribera del Duero.

Rebeca Colina Giralda gave us a wonderful tour of the Abadia Retuerta vineyards and a tasting of their magnificent wines. The juxtaposition of modern winemaking in a thoughtfully restored centuries-old abbey was an inspiring experience, and the wines are wonderful. Running into Rebeca at a tapas bar in Valladolid the next day was like seeing an old friend!

But few have done more to advance winemaking in the Ribera than Alejandro Fernandez, founder of the Tinto Pesquera group. We had the great pleasure of having lunch with one of his daughters, Lucia Fernandez Rivera, and got to know her and the wines (Pesquera, La Granja, Condado de Haza, and El Vinculo.) Their new hotel, another caringly restored old building in the same vein as Abadia, is well worth a visit.

But not all the winemakers in the Duero are adherents to tradition, as in the case of Richard Sanz of Sitios de Bodega. We had a phenomenal dinner with Richard and a small group at the new symphony hall in Valladolid, showcasing modern Spanish cuisine with a range of wines. Bravo!

Thanksgiving dinner (just happened to be that day, not a Spanish holiday) was an experience so unique that I doubt any American has ever done it before. We enjoyed a private tour of the traditional musical instruments museum run by the multitalented Paco Diaz, who then took us to his 400-year old Bodega cave in Cigales and prepared a truly memorable meal. As you might imagine, there was plenty of local wine, singing, and camaraderie. Our companion for the evening was Angel Moreton, director of the new and very sophisticated International School of Culinary Arts. If you have a chance to visit (and I hope you do) look for a copy of my book in their library.

Back in Madrid we had the great privilege of dining at the CafĂ© de Oriente with Alfonso de Salas, of the Spanish newspapers El Mundo and El Economista, and founder of the splendid winery Montecastro. Definitely get your hands on some of this wine, and look for a review of my book in the Spanish press.

Thinking back on these memorable experiences, I feel healthier already. And send me an email if you want to know where the best undiscovered medieval hill town in central Spain is, or for more recommendations on Spain’s remarkable Tempranillo wines.