Is a glass of red wine a day good for you?

Tuesday, July 4, 2006
Does red wine deserve its reputation as a healthy choice?

It has been linked with all sorts of health benefits over the years: the heart, the lungs, prevention of breast cancer, prostate cancer, tooth decay, longevity and just general wellbeing. But can this be true and how can one drink affect so many parts of the body?

Our reporter Dr Andrew Rochford uncorks a few reds to investigate the truth.

The whole idea that red wine keeps us healthy comes from something called the French Paradox. Scientists noticed that despite a diet loaded with saturated fat, very few French people actually croak it from heart attacks.

Just 83 out of 100,000 Frenchmen die from heart disease compared with 230 in the US. The difference? The amount of red wine they drink.

Family doctor Philip Norrie is such a red wine advocate and fan that he bought his own vineyard in the New South Wales Hunter Valley. He's also written several books and a thesis on red wine and its health benefits.

"We're all going to die from something and what I'm trying to do is delay your death," says Dr Norrie. He says the wine has been used medicinally for over 5000 years for antiseptic (treating wounds, water and preoperative), as a tranquiliser or sedative, and as a hypnotic.

This 'wine doctor' is a devoted disciple of red wine — he recommends it to many of his patients.

Heart attacks are the leading cause of death in Australia. They're triggered by a build-up of plaque in your arteries. So how does red wine help? It contains anti-oxidants, and the most important of these is resveratrol. It keeps your arteries clear of plaque therefore reducing the risk of heart disease.

"An anti-oxidant is a thing that stops oxidation. Oxidation is basically rusting, so when we're ageing we're oxidising or degenerating or rusting, so if you can block that process then you get all these health benefits because vascular disease, dementia, diabetes, all these cancers are forms of degeneration or oxidation," says Dr Norrie.

So drinking red wine is good for your heart, lungs, kidneys, brain and more.

But it's important you only drink two standard glasses of wine a day. Anymore and you risk the downsides of excessive alcohol intake: raised blood pressure, potential damage to the heart, liver, kidneys and brain. Over consumption of alcohol can also cause impotence and infertility, while during pregnancy it can damage the foetus.

"You've got to get the Goldilocks dose: too much is bad for you and abstinence is bad for you, whereas moderation's good for you," says Dr Norrie.

Also, people with high blood pressure, enlarged hearts, liver disease or anyone with a family history of alcohol abuse shouldn't be downing this daily dose.

So we've established that red wine is good for us in moderation, but is there any difference in the kind of wine we knock back? Most of us have champagne tastes on a beer budget so is a cask wine as good for you as an expensive bottle of red?

Professor Geoff Skurray has the answer. He researches the molecular content of red wine and the ways to increase the medically beneficial compounds in wine for the University of Western Sydney at its Yarramundi winery in Richmond.

Using some fancy machinery, the Professor can measure the levels of resveratrol — the good compound — in different bottles of wine and tell us which one is best.

So is there any difference between cheaper wine and the more expensive wine? Actually, yes.

According to Professor Skurray "there's much less anti-oxidants in the cheaper wine but you probably drink more of that than the other one so you make up for it."

It comes down to the way the wine is made. Cheaper wine doesn't have the rich fruit. You have to have really good fruit that has a lot of colour and anti-oxidants — this is what goes into the more expensive wines.

Professor Skurray's tests showed a $300 bottle of wine had twice as much resveratrol as a bottle costing about $10, while the cask wine had a quarter of it.

But wine lovers shouldn't despair.

According to Professor Skurray while the cheaper wines may contain less anti-oxidants, it doesn't mean we have to go without anti-oxidants because there are still health benefits in drinking two glasses of cask wine.

So why just red wine? What about the white varieties? It's because red wine is made using the skin and seeds of the grape and that's where all the goodness is. If you're not a wine lover, you might decide to just eat grapes. But you'd have to eat half a kilo a day to get the same amount of resveratrol contained in one glass of wine. Anyway why not make the most of it?

It's not often something so nice turns out not to be naughty after all.

Great news for wine lovers!

Alcoholic recommendations
Women: are currently advised to drink no more than two or three units of alcohol per day (one unit = a small glass of wine, half a pint of beer, or one pub measure of spirits). Men: are advised against going above three or four units per day).

  • Drinking red wine might help you live longer as well. How do we know? Italian scientists fed fish resveratrol and found the little swimmers lived up to 60 percent longer.


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