Real Food Profile: Red Wine

by | Feb 6, 2023 | Nutrition, Real Food

Image: Shutterstock

Is this indulgence really healthy? 

Over the past 25 years, the number of wineries in the US has increased five-fold, to a little over 10,000.  US wine consumption is also steadily increasing.  But aside from the enjoyment and social aspects of that glass, could drinking red wine (in moderation of course) actually have health benefits?

It’s quite possible that you’ve heard both “absolutely!” and “absolutely not!” as answers to this question, because studies that have been carried out in different ways, with different populations, and under different conditions, have yielded conflicting results.1

What we do know without doubt is that wine contains two types of chemicals that are known to affect the operation of our bodies: alcohol and polyphenols.  

In this article we’re not going discuss the pros and cons of drinking moderate amounts of alcohol; we’ve addressed that elsewhere. We should note, however, that it is quite clear that heavy drinking is very unhealthy, with “heavy” generally defined as more than two drinks a day on average or more than 4 drinks in a single day for men of average weight, and half that for women of average weight.

So let’s talk about polyphenols. These are chemicals found in plants that are generally known to strengthen the immune system and have other positive biochemical and biological effects in the body. As one example, researchers have found more diverse gut microbes in participants who drank red wine compared to other forms of alcohol, which they attribute to polyphenols. One of the authors, Dr. Caroline Le Roy said: “…this study shows that moderate red wine consumption is associated with greater diversity and a healthier gut microbiota that partly explain its long debated beneficial effects on health.2

There are many polyphenols; two that have garnered a fair amount of attention are resveratrol and quercetin. We’ll focus on resveratrol, which has been linked in numerous studies3 to improved cardiovascular health, reduced insulin resistance, lower blood pressure and other health benefits and is contained in grapes, blueberries, cranberries and peanuts.

Different varieties of grapevines, growing conditions, and harvest time all have an effect on how much and which polyphenols ultimately end up in your glass of wine. Generally speaking, it seems that red wines made with thicker-skinned grapes have some of the highest levels of resveratrol.4 Thinner skinned grapes, like Pinot Noir, when grown in cooler and wetter conditions like Oregon and France, can also produce higher levels of resveratrol. But it’s not just the grapes that influence polyphenol content—fermentation methods, and other wine-making practices also affect the levels.  

Red wine contains more resveratrol, quercetin and other polyphenols than white wine because of the length of time the grape juices are kept in contact with the seeds and skins (it’s the seeds and skins that contain the highest concentrations of polyphenols). There are, however, some unique “skin contact” white wines that are also allowed to soak for a while in contact with the skins and seeds of white grapes. These are called orange wines due to their golden color, but they are not commonly found in the United States.  

Bottom line: If you want more polyphenols in your wine, red is definitely the way to go. But here’s a fact that you don’t often see in articles that tout the potential health benefits of red wine due to its polyphenol content: a glass of red wine contains something around 1/8 gram of polyphenols.  That’s not very much–1/8 gram is about a single “shake” of salt. A cup of tea or coffee, a square of dark chocolate, or a handful of berries contain substantially more polyphenols (a serving of the polyphenol champion black elderberries has about fifteen times as much polyphenol content as red wine). So if your primary objective is consuming polyphenols, you have lots of appealing, non-alcoholic options.5

Finally, it’s possible to get the health benefits from wine without all of its alcohol, by incorporating it into your recipes. While cooking with wine may not eliminate all of the alcohol, the longer the food is heated the less the alcohol content will be. And there is evidence that many of the beneficial vascular effects of wine could remain even after heating.6 Wine’s flavor as an ingredient in your recipes can certainly enhance a number of dishes. This does NOT, however, mean that you should cook with so called ‘cooking wines. ’ These grocery store imposters are usually loaded with preservatives and don’t taste very good. The popular saying that you should only cook with wine that you’d want to actually drink definitely holds true, especially since the flavors will become even more intensified upon heating and reducing in dishes like sauces and stews.  

Here’s a family recipe for a simple homemade tomato sauce served over squash (which will contribute its own share of polyphenols). (Our thanks to editor Jessica for this delicious recipe.) 

Fundamentals of Health Alliance

Fundamentals of Health Alliance

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The Fundamentals of Health Alliance works to publish useful and reliable information about nutrition and health. Their mission is to empower readers to be informed with honest, non-biased information about food, nutrition and the vital components of health.

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