Red wine frenzy
It's almost a perfect storm of a wine-news story, the new study published this week in the British journal Nature, hinting that a substance in red wine called resveratrol may protect us against a high-fat diet and, yes, even help us live longer.
But don't throw away your exercise bike just yet.
Naturally the general news media has been quick to jump on the story. "A new study shows drinking red wine may help you live longer, even if you eat a high-fat diet," a Virginia television station breathlessly reported. "Lovers of fatty food may be able to have their cake and eat it too," chimed in Australia's Border Mail. San Francisco's veteran food writer Michael Bauer joined the chorus, writing, "Another study has confirmed what wine drinkers have known for eons: red wine is good - no, great - for us." And in Philadelphia, a television reporter fairly swooned at the news, reporting, "... a red wine extract could be the key to staying young and healthy even if you're overweight."
The purported active substance, resveratrol, is an antioxidant found in red grapeskins and other natural sources including Japanese itadori green tea, a variety that, tellingly, can be translated as "well being." There's no news here: Researchers have been studying the apparent relationship between resveratrol in red wine and improved cardiovascular health and longevity since the early 1990s. Their efforts inspired a CBS 60 Minutes report in 1996 on "The French Paradox," the seemingly contradictory reality that French wine lovers eat a diet rich in butter and cream, drink a lot of red wine, yet are statistically unlikely to die of heart disease.
This publicity almost instantly turned around wine consumption figures in the U.S., where white wine had outsold red wine for generations. Since "The French Paradox," reds have taken over and hold the lead, even though 60 Minutes didn't mention that French people in general also walk more, exercise more, and are less likely to be obese than the average American.
The study published in Nature, was conducted by scientists from Harvard Medical School and the National Institute on Aging, led by doctors David Sinclair and Joseph Baur at Harvard and Rafael de Cabo at the Institute. Dr. Sinclair, The New York Times observes, is also the founder of a company, Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, that develops chemicals intended to mimic the role of resveratrol at lower doses.
The study's findings, summed up in an abstract, concluded, "... resveratrol shifts the physiology of middle-aged mice on a high-calorie diet towards that of mice on a standard diet and significantly increases their survival." The New York Times summarized, "Their report ... implies that very large daily doses of resveratrol could offset the unhealthy, high-calorie diet thought to underlie the rising toll of obesity in the United States and elsewhere, if people respond to the drug as mice do."
But it's a long stretch from studies in mice to miracle medical defenses for humans. Although the French Paradox has already inspired a cottage industry of pricey nutritional supplements packed chock full o' resveratrol (a trend that the current publicity storm will surely kick into overdrive just in time for holiday feasting), scientists remain cautious. Say the authors of the Nature study: "These data show that improving general health in mammals using small molecules is an attainable goal, and point to new approaches for treating obesity-related disorders and diseases of ageing."
Moreover, Scientific American, "Even if resveratrol does turn out to be a miracle drug, a wine glass would probably not be the preferred delivery method."
Still, I'm already expecting a flood of questions about wine and fat, demanding an addition to my Frequently Asked Questions. I might as well write it now: "Calm down, folks! We're talking about tests on mice!"
What's more, the research, as The New York Times figured out, involved dosing the mice with massive amounts of resveratrol, " ... 24 milligrams per kilogram of body weight," The Times reported. "Red wine has about 1.5 to 3 milligrams of resveratrol per liter, so a 150-lb person would need to drink 750 to 1,500 bottles of red wine a day to get such a dose."
At that rate, I've still got 1,499 and a half bottles to go today. So I'm sticking for now with my standard reply to this Frequently Asked Question: "If you like red wine in moderation, drink it with my blessing. But for heaven's sake, don't take it as medicine."
Nature, "Resveratrol improves health and survival of mice on a high-calorie diet," Nov. 1, 2006:
The New York Times, "Yes, Red Wine Holds Answer. Check Dosage," Nov. 2, 2006:
Scientific American, "SCIENCE NEWS: The Fountain of Youth at the Bottom of a Wine Bottle?" Nov. 2, 2006:
And finally, a chuckle-worthy if not quite hilarious parody in Britain's The Spoof, "Gluttons Monopolize World Supply of Red Wine and Red Grapes" (Nov. 2, 2006):
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Friday, Nov. 3, 2006