Do you have any idea how many headlines and so-called “studies” have been released to date about red wine? If you are thinking in the thousands, you are on the right track. It seems like every few weeks, the public is bombarded with another fresh round of headlines trying to promote something positive about red wine. But why are we told this when we have known for decades that ALL alcohol is an addictive neurotoxin, carcinogen, and depressant? There is no free pass here that only if you drink it in this amount or this frequency that these traits do not apply. These three serious health risks apply every time and to all alcohol. The fact that most people do not want to hear them or know them and prefer to downplay them or gloss over them is another story.
Clinicians need to be highly skeptical about the hypothesized health benefits of alcohol consumption and should not advise their patients to drink to improve life expectancy. This is especially important given increasing awareness of cancer risks from even moderate alcohol use.
Study raises new doubts regarding the hypothesised health benefits of ‘moderate’ alcohol use - BMJ Evidence-based Medicine
So how did red wine receive its misleading health status? Predominantly due to the fact that it contains a phytochemical compound called resveratrol, which is a type of polyphenol. Resveratrol is an antioxidant-like pigment that has been detected in more than 70 plant species, with grape skins and seeds (of all colors) having the highest concentration of it. Resveratrol has been most associated with improved cardiovascular health, which includes decreased risks of heart disease, stroke, blood clots, and cholesterol problems, as well as improved longevity. It is a potent antioxidant and also exerts anticarcinogenic, antiviral, neuroprotective, anti-inflammatory properties.
This is all excellent news and should make us eager to consume resveratrol, however, to associate resveratrol with red wine is very misleading. Why? Because red wine only contains minute amounts of resveratrol. So little in fact that if you were hoping for the resveratrol benefits, you would have to consume anywhere from tens to hundreds of bottles of red wine per day! Yes, you read that correctly, and I will explain more about this below. That is why the purpose of this article is to bring awareness to this topic and bust the persistent myth that red wine is any kind of health food or has any role to play in an optimally healthy diet and lifestyle.
Drinking alcohol for health benefits is like eating burgers for the gherkins.
Catherine Gray, Author of The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober
The Magical Resveratrol
Resveratrol was first discovered in 1939 by a Japanese scientist named Michio Takaoka, and shortly after that identified as a phenolic phytochemical. Then, in the early 2000s, Harvard scientist David Sinclair Ph.D. discovered that it was an activator of enzymes known as sirtuins that regulate cellular health and, thus, influence longevity. Since then, it has become one of the most popular molecules for study and one of the most hotly debated ones too.
To date, resveratrol has been featured in over 20,000 research papers and continues to drive innovative research about its potential for our health and longevity. However, the scientific community has not yet reached a conclusive stance about its health potential for humans. Out of the many thousands of experiments, the majority of the studies were done on animals, namely rodents, and in lab settings and quantities that do not reflect real-life settings. The truth is that studies on human health and longevity are tough to conduct due to the inability of researchers to control for the thousands of factors that influence our health and lifespan. What the research has accomplished thus far with certainty, however, is the creation of more wealth for the pharmaceutical, supplement, and red wine industries. Each of these has seized the resveratrol opportunity to create new drugs, resveratrol supplements, and promote wine sales thanks to exaggerated claims and misleading headlines. David Sinclair, who continues to stand by the resveratrol molecule and its role in longevity, is just one example of this proliferation and the reason he has become a controversial figure in the scientific community.
On top of all this, a grave error is being made in the general research studies that are widespread everywhere today in our reductionist-minded science that isolates and tests molecules and compounds outside of their whole source and natural function. We’ve gained enough information to know that compounds, like vitamins, minerals, and now phytochemicals, operate as they do and provide us with the benefits they do based on intricate synergistic action with other molecules that they exist within whole foods. How resveratrol behaves when it is in red grapes is not the same as when it is an isolated supplement. There is perhaps no one who explains this shortcoming in the field of science, medicine, and nutrition better than T. Colin Campbell, PhD. in his book Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition. If we want to enjoy the safest and most effective benefits of resveratrol for our health and longevity, then we need to look towards our food and not any drug or supplement.
The Resveratrol and Red Wine Connection
As you can hopefully see by now, the wine industry was given a powerful marketing handout when resveratrol became associated with it. It didn’t matter that red wine only has minuscule amounts of resveratrol that provide little to zero benefits for our health because just the association alone was enough for the media and wine companies to capitalize on a new trend. The media companies got their clickbait, while the red wine companies got their sales.
So how much resveratrol is actually in red wine?
Before we answer that question, let’s begin with how much resveratrol has been shown to be required for any potential beneficial health effects that have been studied. The current recommended dietary allowance (RDA) is 1 gram of resveratrol per day for therapeutic purposes.
A 2016 research report Resveratrol: How Much Wine Do You Have to Drink to Stay Healthy? published in the journal Advances in Nutrition, which cites the above RDA, references the following amount of resveratrol as having been found in various kinds of red wines studied: 0.361 to 1.972 mg of resveratrol per liter. If we do a little simple math, recall that there are 1000 milligrams in a gram. So even in a best-case scenario, if we round the top number above for simplicity to 2 mg of resveratrol per liter of wine, a person would need to drink 500 liters of red wine per day. If we were to use the lowest reference number for red wine, it would equate to over 2700 liters of red wine per day**. As if either of these cases weren’t bad enough, not to mention completely unrealistic, the authors of the report state that “it is not possible to absorb the recommended dose of resveratrol through the uptake of any of these nutrients or combinations thereof” even if we include other resveratrol-containing foods. This means that people who abide by these numbers and are taking the resveratrol research at face value would have no choice but to rely on a supplement to get enough resveratrol to meet the cited beneficial requirements. This begs the question of how realistic and valuable all these studies on resveratrol are in the first place.
Here are a few other figures that have been referenced:
A 2011 report from the Mayo Clinic, which has since been removed, cited the following amount:
Research in mice given resveratrol suggests that the antioxidant might also help protect them from obesity and diabetes, both of which are substantial risk factors for heart disease. However, those findings were reported only in mice, not in people. To get the same dose of resveratrol used in the mice studies, a person would have to drink over 60 liters of red wine every day.
Mayo Clinic (2011), Red wine and resveratrol: Good for your heart? by Mayo Clinic staff
Medical News Today cites the following amount based on a study of red wine and dementia benefits:
A 2015 study found that a high dose of resveratrol appeared to stabilize a key biomarker for Alzheimer’s. The amount needed, however, is far higher than anyone would get from a glass of wine. The participants took a-1 gram (g) supplement by mouth twice a day, equivalent to the amount in 1,000 bottles of wine.
Medical News Today (2017), Is red wine good for you? Written by Yvette Brazier; Medically reviewed by Deborah Weatherspoon, Ph.D., R.N., CRNA
I do hope that this is a sobering exercise (pun intended) that demonstrates how research and scientific studies can be easily misrepresented in our society today. The problem is further compounded when clickbait-hungry media outlets spin those facts completely out of proportion and end up with entirely misleading headlines such as this: New Studies Confirm Health Benefits of Red Wine. The double irony of this headline is that no wine was even tested in those studies, but only isolated resveratrol compounds. This means that the headline could just as easily have read “New Studies Confirm Benefits of Red Grapes” or any other food for that matter that contains any resveratrol. Of course, the media source could also have chosen to be entirely honest and state the obvious “New Studies Confirm Benefits of Isolated Resveratrol.” Why didn’t they? Simple. Media headlines seek to create “shock and awe,” and monotonous, obscure, or boring-sounding headlines just aren’t going to cut it.
Now, if you are the kind of person who goes beyond the headline and you actually chose to read the whole story, you would learn that the studies focused on resveratrol benefits and not red wine. You would also learn that there was a conflict of interest by the parties doing the research given their ties to a resveratrol supplement company (Biotivia). This happens most of the time in our society today; the media provides one layer of deception and the studies themselves provide a further layer of deception. All this results in a lot of misinformation.
Other Health Risks of Wine
Most wine today is highly processed, just like any other industrially-processed foods and drinks, and this alone has numerous implications for human health and wellbeing. In addition to the problems cited above and lack of justifiable health benefits, red wine is also a common source of the following:
- Pesticides - Grapes are amongst the most heavily sprayed crops and contain numerous pesticides with carcinogenic, neurotoxic, and hormone-disrupting properties. Each year grapes end up on the EWG’s Dirty Dozen list and are one of the most important foods to buy organic. Likewise, grapes in vineyards undergo heavy pesticide applications, many of which end up in the wine and are the reason why some health-conscious consumers seek out organic wine options.
- Glyphosate - Speaking of pesticides, one of the most widely used and notoriously destructive is Roundup, which contains glyphosate. It is routinely used in vineyards around the world, and wine and other alcoholic beverages are contaminated with glyphosate. This is a chemical that has been associated with numerous health risks and toxic effects and classified by the WHO’s IARC in 2015 as a probable carcinogen.
- Additives - Online sources cite that the FDA approves 76 additives for the use in wine manufacturing in the United States. These include unnatural fillers, flavor agents, and various chemical additives. Unfortunately, unlike food products, winemakers are not required to provide an ingredient list, meaning that you have no idea what is in the wine that you are drinking. And aside from questionable or controversial substances, vegan and vegetarian consumers should be aware that commercial wine processing routinely includes animal by-products.
- Sulfites - On the topic of additives, wines can contain both naturally-occurring sulfites and added sulfites. These additives are common food preservatives and of special concern, because while they are tolerated fine by some people’s bodies, they can cause various symptoms for others who are sensitive to sulfites. The most common sulfite reactions revolve around respiratory issues, but can also include rashes and other skin problems, digestive issues, and headaches. In general, sulfites are a group of preservatives that are best avoided for optimal health.
- Arsenic - Most wines that have been tested had arsenic levels above the safe water threshold set by the US Environmental Protection Agency.
The Healthiest Alcohol Use
Not only is red wine not a health-promoting substance, but being a type of alcohol, it increases our risk of all kinds of health problems and diminishes the quality of our life. I outline and explain this in my article 12 reasons to remove alcohol from your diet and life. Even though popular media and most medical and governing bodies have yet to catch up to promoting the message of not drinking any alcohol, more information is coming out which conclusively states that no amount of alcohol is safe or healthy.
A 2018 study from the University of Washington School of Medicine concludes that there is No safe level of alcohol and a few weeks before this study came out CBC Radio with host Paul Kennedy featured an outstanding episode entitled Alcohol: Tonic or Toxin? In it, leading experts and researchers who set the alcohol guidelines back in the 1980s explained that they had no idea what they were doing and should have set drinking standards to zero, but no one would have taken them seriously. So they put out numbers that many people have come to live by as if these were the ultimate truth when nothing could be further from the truth; not even science backs up those numbers.
Unfortunately, the alcohol industry is vast, just like the pharmaceutical and supplement industries, and it is not going to do down or go away without a fight. There is a reason why alcohol ads are found everywhere in our society, and drinking is pushed and promoted for every holiday, celebration, and social interaction to make it seem normal and expected. This, along with mixed health messages and deceptive studies on alcohol, keep many people who want to be healthy hooked on it, not realizing how much they are sabotaging their health, not to mention wasting their money to voluntarily put a toxin into their bodies.
The concluding messages that I hope you take away from this article are as follows:
- If you don’t already drink alcohol, don’t start, and don’t think that you are missing out on any health benefits that cannot be gained in much safer and healthier ways. The healthiest alcohol is no alcohol at all.
- If you do drink any alcohol, but specifically red wine, do not fool yourself into thinking that you are doing something healthy for yourself. You may enjoy the taste of red wine, you may like the social status or social interaction that it provides you, it may just be a routine practice for you, or you seek alcohol’s numbing effects. Any of those are realistic and honest reasons for drinking alcohol, but to try to paint it as some “good” or “healthy” habit is not. At the end of the day, alcohol is still an addictive neurotoxin, carcinogen, and depressant.
- If you do drink any alcohol and are serious about protecting your physical, mental, and emotional health as best as possible, then the wisest thing you can do is to remove all alcohol from your lifestyle.
- If you want the benefits of resveratrol, eat a lot of whole plant foods, especially grapes with their skins and seeds. The easiest way to eat grapes with seeds is to blend them as part of a smoothie, using a high-powered blender like a Vitamix, which can fully pulverize the seeds.
- If you want the protective and preventative benefits that have been associated with resveratrol for your cardiovascular health and longevity, eat a whole food plant-based diet. There is no other dietary approach that offers more protection or more powerful benefits than whole plant foods, against heart disease, diabetes type 2, cancers, obesity, Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other chronic diseases.
It will still be some time before our society starts to see all alcohol as it does tobacco, which has no place whatsoever in a healthy lifestyle. However, until then, we must each take personal responsibility and get honest about our own health priorities. By following the crowd and making excuses, we are only working against ourselves and sabotaging our individual healthy living efforts.
Further Reading & Resources
- Do Any Benefits of Alcohol Outweigh the Risks? by Michael Greger, MD - NutritionFacts.org
- Is It Better to Drink a Little Alcohol than None at All? by Michael Greger, MD - NutritionFacts.org
- Resveratrol: A Double-Edged Sword in Health Benefits by Bahare Salehi, Abhay Prakash Mishra, et al. - Journal of Biomedicines
- The Journey of Resveratrol from Yeast to Human by Silvie Timmers, Johan Auwerx, and Patrick Schrauwen - Journal of Aging
- Alcohol’s evaporating health benefits by Mike Daube - BMJ
- Moderate Alcohol Consumption Is Not Associated With Reduced All-Cause Mortality by Robert Goulden - The American Journal of Medicine