red, white, and breast cancer

The red vs white debate is enough to make me blue. Red wine, with very few exceptions, has much higher levels of the polyphenols to which many but not all of wine’s benefits are attributed. In recent weeks, reports came out that it didn’t matter whether it was even wine or any other alcoholic drink, breast cancer risk was apparently raised by as little as a glass a day. As I have pointed out in previous posts, there are too many problems with the way the data for these studies is gathered to say anything that definitive, but now a study from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center here in Seattle weighs in with the red vs white wine question. They were particularly interested because earlier studies from the Hutch (as we call it here) found that red wine drinking correlated to lowered odds of prostate cancer in men, and a large body of research suggests that wine polyphenols are effective at countering breast cancer.

The study, funded by the National Cancer Institute, was looking for reduced risk of breast cancer with red wine. What they found was that more than 14 drinks per week correlated to an increase of 24% in breast cancer incidence, regardless of type. The authors were careful it appears to not make the mistake that many others do in interpreting the data, however, which is to extrapolate backwards from 2 drinks per day equalling 24% risk to 1 drink implying a 10-12% risk. The reason it is a mistake is that there is no way of measuring self-reported behavioral data that accurately so the effects of a drink a day are essentially unknowable. This is especially true because there are so many other studies showing that moderate drinking is beneficial, in terms of cancer risk and many other health factors. And of course there are few people who really only drink one type of alcoholic beverage and in the same amounts every day.

The authors did recommend that women should limit drinking to one per day, which is probably sensible especially if you are in a higher than average cancer risk category. I’m still in the red wine camp, at least where healthy drinking is concerned.

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