Monday, November 7, 2016
The French paradox at 25
November 17 2016 will mark twenty-five years since the CBS television show 60 Minutes christenedthe term “French paradox” and ushered in the modern era of research on wine and health. It was a provocative idea at the time, attributing the French custom of regular imbibing to health and well-being. It still has its naysayers; as recently as 2015, England’s chief medical officer Sally Davies scorned the idea and proclaimed it an “old wives’ tale.” (She suggested a cup of tea instead, presumably with pinky finger raised.) Then there are those who reduce the idea to a simple question of nutritional biochemistry and proclaim that all of wine’s health benefits can be put into a pill, conveniently and properly skipping the alcohol. Is there still a useful truth underlying the paradox?
The science that grew from the seed planted by the French paradox idea has grown far beyond what any of the early researchers could have predicted. Polyphenols from the skins of wine grapes have emerged as vitally important elements of an anti-aging diet. Among the best known is resveratrol, about which there were 2 articles in the scientific literature in the year of the original broadcast of the story; there a more than 2 every day now. Resveratrol provides a handy explanation for why wine drinkers have lower odds of developing Alzheimer’s, diabetes, osteoporosis, and pretty much all of the diseases of aging. It helps break up the protein plaques in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s, prevents cholesterol from aggregating into concretions in the arteries, kills cancer cells (while protecting normal ones), even improves insulin sensitivity in diabetics. Resveratrol certainly appears to be a miracle molecule, as I dubbed it in my book Age Gets Better with Wine. There are huge international conferences on resveratrol, and tomes on resveratrol market conditions.
In 1979 a paper was published in the famous medical journal The Lancet.(1) The article found a clear correlation of average wine consumption by country to lowered rates of heart disease, and it became an iconic reference. No one knew at the time why this should be so, but the authors concluded the article by observing that if the ingredient in wine should ever be identified, “we consider it almost a sacrilege that this constituent be isolated. The medicine is already in a highly palatable form (as every connoisseur will confirm.)”
1 1. St Leger AS, Cochrane AL, Moore F. Factors associated with cardiac mortality in developed countries with particular reference to the consumption of wine. Lancet. 1979 May 12;1(8124):1017-20.