The Remarkable Health Benefits of Red Wine

In 1991, 60 Minutes broadcast a story that dealt with a phenomena we have come to know as the "French Paradox". The story posed an important question. How can it be that coronary heart disease rates among French males is significantly lower than the rate for US males when the French consume much more saturated animal fat than Americans? The French Paradox appears on the surface to contradict everything health professionals have been telling us about the rules of healthy eating.

It's instructive to look at the details of how the French and American diets differ.

According to research data cited in Wikipedia, in 2002 the average French person consumed 108 grams of animal fat, while the average American consumed only 72 grams. The French eat four times as much butter, sixty percent more cheese and nearly three times as much pork as Americans. Overall the consumption of saturated fat is much higher in France. Yet astoundingly according to data from the British Heart Foundation for 1999, death among males 35-74 was 230 per 100,000 in the US, but only 83 per 100,000 in France.

How to explain this? The 60 minutes story attributed the French results to the red wine that is a staple of French diets. Many researchers believe red wine is the magic bullet that explains the mystery. This article endorses that finding, while also acknowledging that other factors in the French diet likely contribute to greater longevity. For example the French are less inclined to snack-on-the-run and are not as keen on fast foods as Americans. The French diet in addition tends to be more varied and the portions smaller on average.

Scientists believe the key to the healthful benefits of red wine lie in the antioxidants, or flavonoids. Flavonoids help to reduce the production of LDL, low density lipoprotein - sometimes referred to as "bad" cholesterol. They also have the effect of increasing HDL, high density lipoprotein, the so-called "good" cholesterol. These combined effects help to prevent blood clots and improve the lipid profile overall.

Some researchers claim that the positives of drinking red wine go beyond cardiovascular benefits. A number of studies have discovered that an antioxidant concentrated in the skin of the grape, resveratrol, may actually help inhibit the growth of cancerous tumors. Research into the properties of resveratrol also indicates that it may be helpful in the formation of nerve cells, and so could potentially be a factor in the treatment of neurological diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

However since resveratrol occurs in wine at very low levels of concentration, it's unlikely that this antioxidant alone can explain the French Paradox. It appears to be best explained by the combination of elements in wine, including the very important oligomeric polyphenols. Some scientists believe that they offer the greatest protection to human blood vessel cells. Interestingly enough these polyphenols are found in greatest concentration in European red wines from specific areas. Wines made from the Tannat grape, grown in the Gers region of south-west France have some of the highest concentrations.

Aside from these Tannat vintages, which wines confer most health benefits? Based on flavonoid count - Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Petit Syrah rank highest. Although Merlot and Zinfandel have become more popular in recent years, they tend to have fewer flavonoids. White wine is even lower on the scale, and the sweeter the white, the fewer the flavonoids.

Although most medical advice recommends moderate wine consumption, new research appears to indicate the contrary. In a study conducted by the Harvard Medical School and National Institute of Aging, large amounts of red wine extract was fed to mice. Even though the mice were fed a high fat diet, they lived a long and healthy life. Scientists hail the results as "spectacular". The death rate for the mice on the wine extract supplement dropped 31%, as compared to the untreated mice. The treated mice also lived longer than average. Another aspect of the study that surprised researchers, was that the organs of the overweight mice that received the extract looked entirely normal.

Scientists caution that it is too soon to tell how these benefits will carry over into humans and that people shouldn't be tempted to overdo the wine consumption on the basis of these results.

Based on the research over the past few years, there is little doubt that red wine does indeed confer significant health benefits. But as I mentioned above, other factors also come into play. The benefits of red wine will be less apparent if a person has a driven lifestyle high on stress, with junk food as the primary diet. But when the eating habits are conducive to a healthy lifestyle the benefits of red wine rank high.

Here's to everyone's good health!

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About The Author, Aidan Maconachy
Aidan has a BAHons/BEd and taught for a period in the UK and Canada. He lives in Ontario and is married with a daughter. He's also a cartoonist and has been a contributor to a variety of magazines and newspapers over the years. You can visit his blog at