French health minister Agnès Buzyn recently created a major buzzkill across the winemaking world by denouncing claims that wine could be beneficial and increase longevity. Ms. Buzyn, a hematologist, broke with wine loving President Emmanuel Macron, saying in a television interview that “The French population is led to believe that wine protects them, that it offers benefits that other alcohol does not. Scientifically, wine is an alcohol like any other.” This is true only in the narrowest sense, and wrong in the larger sense. Here’s why:
Yes, it’s technically accurate to state that alcohol (ethanol) distilled from wine, beer or spirits is the same, but the conclusion that all beverages are equally detrimental is fallacious. We don’t consume the alcohol independently of the source. The benefits of wine are attached to the lifestyle of moderate consumption with meals; the patternof drinking matters.
But to the larger point, wine’s health benefits are not exclusively derived from lifestyle choices. The presence of an extensive family of antioxidant polyphenols in wine provides unique benefits to health. Though resveratrol gets most of the credit, these compounds work synergistically, amplifying the effects. This was shown in an interesting study[i]finding that resveratrol had pro-oxidant effects at low concentrations, anti-oxidant effects at high concentrations, but exhibited antioxidant effects at all concentrations in the presence of red wine polyphenols. What’s more, other studies[ii]find that these polyphenols and associated antioxidant activity are at least twice as potent in wine and wine grapes as compared to table grapes and juice. Wine is not just grape juice with alcohol.
Which begs the question: If wine has more antioxidants than grape juice, isn’t the benefit cancelled by alcohol? In order to answer that, consider that the alcohol comes from sugars, so unfermented grape juice is a high-sugar drink. As a source of calories, alcohol is in many ways more favorable (scientifically speaking.) There is no spike in blood sugar levels with wine (low glycemic index) which is why diabetics for example handle alcohol calories from wine without problems. Indeed, studies show improvement in blood sugar control when wine is introduced into the diet for type 2 diabetics.
So I take issue with Dr. Buzyn and others trying to debunk the French paradox. At least her boss sees it differently; in a 2016 interview Macron stated “I was raised by my grandparents who used to say that ‘red wine is an antioxidant.’ There was no guilt,” he said. “Wine is not a type of alcohol one drinks to get drunk, but to be well at the table.” The way I see it, that’s closer to the scientific truth.
[i]Cavallini G, Straniero S, Donati A, Bergamini E. Resveratrol requires red wine polyphenols for optimum antioxidant activity. J Nutr Health Aging 2016;20(5):540-5.
[ii]Liang Z, Cheng L, Zhong GY, Liu RH. Antioxidant and antiproliferative activities of twenty-four Vitis vinifera grapes. PLoS One. 2014 Aug 18;9(8):e105146.