The French Paradox at 20

This year will mark twenty years since the CBS television show 60 Minutes christened the term “French paradox” and ushered in the modern era of research on wine and health. It was a provocative idea at the time, attributing the French custom of regular imbibing to health and well-being, and it still has its naysayers; at the other extreme, there are those who reduce the idea to a simple question of nutritional biochemistry and proclaim that all of wine’s health benefits can be put into a pill, conveniently and properly skipping the alcohol. Is there still a useful truth underlying the paradox?

As with many questions in the realm of lifestyle and health, the answers are often nuanced and conditional. Though challenged by government authorities in both America and Europe, the authors of the idea – Serge Renaud in Bordeaux and Curt Ellison in Boston – provided a rigorous defense of the notion. The French paradox is invoked regularly as an excuse for having a few, to the point that it has become a cliché and its real lessons lost. Despite all of the advances in understanding the components of wine and how they contribute to health, at its heart the paradox is a reflection of a lifestyle. Wine is a food, squarely affixed in the daily rituals of the Mediterranean diet.

The science that grew from the seed planted by the French paradox idea has grown far beyond what any of the early researchers could have predicted though. Antioxidant polyphenols from the skins of wine grapes (not so much from juice or table grapes) have emerged as vitally important elements of an anti-aging diet. Among the best known is resveratrol, about which there were 2 articles in the scientific literature in the year of the original broadcast of the story, whereas there a more than 2 every day now. Resveratrol and other wine polyphenols provide a handy explanation for why wine drinkers have lower odds of developing Alzheimer’s, diabetes, osteoporosis, and pretty much all of the disease of aging. They help break up the protein plaques in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s, prevent cholesterol from aggregating into concretions in the arteries, kill cancer cells (while protecting normal ones), even improve insulin sensitivity. Resveratrol appears at first glance to be a miracle molecule, as I dubbed it in my book Age Gets Better with Wine.

But there remains a problem with giving resveratrol all the credit: there isn’t very much of it in wine. Data clearly supports the benefits of regular wine consumption, but is lacking when it comes to the use of resveratrol in supplement form. This brings us back to the role of wine as a lifestyle factor. Wine drinkers tend to do a lot of health things besides having a daily tipple with dinner, and wine contains a lot more than the pittance of resveratrol. It is the synergies of these various things that unleash the true benefits of wine.

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