Opinion: The red wine myth

POSTED: 05/15/14 12:53 PM

Oh, the praises for red wine and chocolate. One could simply love the stuff, or one could use as excuse for indulging in these products that they guarantee a longer life. Slobber red wine or eat dark chocolate and the golden years will go one like forever. All that is supposed to be due to a substance called resveratrol – an antioxidant that is present in both red wine and chocolate.

Researchers at the John Hopkins University debunked this myth. Their study will be published this week in the American Medical Journal Jama. The researchers found that there is not a shred of evidence that people become healthier or live longer by drinking red wine, or by eating chocolate or grapes. Resveratrol does not protect consumers against cardiovascular diseases as is often thought.

The study is the first epidemiologic research into the effect of resveratrol. The researchers followed almost 800 Italian citizens over the age of 65 for nine years. Through urine testing they established which participants ingested of lot or just a little of the substance. It turned out that it does not have any effect at all on the risk of dying or on the development of certain diseases.

In 1992, researchers promoted resveratrol as “the secret ingredient of the French paradox.” They claimed that the consumption of red wine compensated the health risks in the French diet which is rich in saturated fats. Critics have already been saying for some time that there is not a lot of resveratrol in red wine to begin with and that it therefore cannot play a crucial role. They also pointed out that the positive effects of this antioxidant on the lifespan of lower organisms (like yeast cells) are too easily projected on humans.

According to Sander Kersten, a professor in molecular food at Wageningen University, the Jama-study is important due to its scope. “Such an observational study is never airtight proof. It is usually the starting point for other studies. In this case those other studies have already been done, for instance by putting high concentrations of resveratrol in pills and by testing these on people.”

Kersten says that there is a lot of research, but that the field is actually a bit of a mess. “There is no consistent conclusion. One researcher finds a positive effect on cancer. The next one finds this for diabetes. Most researchers do not find any effect at all but those studies do not get a lot of attention in the media.”

There is of course yet another component that plays a part in this discussion. People like to believe that red wine is good for them. We get that: it is the ultimate excuse for drinking alcohol. And the fact that red wine drinkers are relatively healthier than others (say, those who have taken to bay rum) has completely different causes, Kersten says. “Red wine drinkers are usually highly educated and well to do citizens. They live longer and healthier anyhow.”

It is not likely that the American food supplement industry will make a serious effort to bring the Jama-study to the attention of its customers. No wonder – there is simply too much money involved. The food supplement industry sells – in the United States alone – every year for $30 million in products that contain resveratrol.

Here is an example of how resveratrol is marketed on a site called supplementspot.com. It shows a bottle containing 60 capsules. The product is called Resvert Plus and it has an original price tag of $48 – that’s $0.80 per capsule. The producer advises consumers to take two capsules a day, so those 48 bucks are gone in a month.

This is how the company advertises its capsules: “A whopping 250 mg of Resveratrol per capsule, combined with Quercetin and Grape Seed Extract, can work wonders to get your body operating at optimum health.”

Then it goes on to give a quasi-scientific explanation about resveratrol. It is “believed to be supportive in regulating serum lipids and supporting cardiovascular health” and “nutritionists and biochemists study resveratrol because of its potential to assist in healthy heart function.” Here is another evasive statement: “Some researchers believe that resveratrol is partially responsible for the cholesterol health benefits of red wine. The most popular sources of resveratrol are red wine and grapes.”

Pay attention to the following expressions in these statements: “believed to be supportive,” “its potential to assist” and “most popular sources.” Support Spot neatly distances itself from the responsibility for the effectiveness of its product.

The company is however not shy to make the following claim that could be alluring to some consumers: “Resvert Plus provides the benefits of 40 liters of red wine in a single serving of 2 capsules per day.

Let’s grab our calculator. Forty liters of red wine represents, say, 53 bottles of wine. At $12 a bottle (we’re no cheapskates here) that comes down to $636. This way the value of a bottle of Resvert Plus equals – if we have to believe Supplement spot of course –a bit more than $19,000 in value of red wine. Swallowing two capsules per day also seems easier than ingesting 40 liters of wine.

It’s a nice story, but the downside (or the upside, depending how one looks at it) is that resveratrol does not have any health effects, but keeping those $48 in the bank buys at least four nice bottles of red wine.

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