Red Wine: An Analysis of Health’s Red Herring

Much has been made lately of the salutatory benefits of resveratrol, an antioxidant found in certain magenta-skinned fruits like grapes and mulberries, and, much more salaciously, in red wine.

As usual, if there is a link to be found between a popular human vice and a redeeming quality thereof, it will be found and then flogged repeatedly until the shards of its truthiness are spread far and wide throughout the fitness tabloids. Thus we are told at least thrice per year that a glass of red wine is “good for you” because of its resveratrol contents, after which several vague notions about cancer prevention and workout results are bandied about without reference or explanation.

So here’s the latest red wine whopper. Science Daily yesterday published a press release entitled “Red Wine: Exercise in a Bottle?” provided by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.

As expected, the pop science world has gone into paroxysms over the renewed permission to drink an alcoholic beverage, ignoring the fact that experimental substance used was resveratrol, not red wine, and that the creatures used in the study did not imbibe, and could not have imbibed, nearly enough red wine to have made a difference to their muscle tone.

The conjecture that red wine is “healthy”, and confers any of the benefits of the minute amounts of resveratrol that it contains, has been perpetrated repeatedly on almost every level of science-like discourse: from the press releases faithfully reproduced on Science Daily, to throw-away mentions in beauty tips on Huffington Post blogs, to the following clip from a Barbara Walters piece on CBS News:

Did you catch that? According to these researchers, who first point out that resveratrol is found in red wine — after which you see the scientist clink his glass with Barbara Walters’ — one would actually need to consume 1,000 bottles of red wine a day to actually intake enough resveratrol to make the 700mg of clinical difference for an average-sized human being of 150 pounds.

That’s because these studies of resveratrol on mice are done using doses anywhere from 22mg / kg all the way up to 400mg / kg. Scale that last figure up to human size, and you’re looking at a 4 to 5 gram dose of resveratrol — something like 5000 bottles red wine per day.

And just to put things in perspective with regards to the claims being made about resveratrol and its ability to “replace” exercise: only one positive human trial exists that has shown effects on blood sugar lowering, in which patients consumed 3 to 5 grams of resveratrol per day — a hell of a lot more than the 700mg the above supplement schills would have you buy from them.

Yet here we have a quote in the “Red Wine: Exercise in a Bottle?” press release about red wine being an acceptable substitute for taking resveratrol supplements:

“If resveratrol supplements are not your cup of tea,” Weissmann added, “then there’s good news. You can find it naturally in red wine, making it the toast of the Milky Way.”

The casual reader might assume that Weissmann is Mr. Upstanding Science Researcher who actually conducted the study, who is commenting on his results and recommending you go ahead and have that glass of red wine. Careful reading, however, reveals that Weissmann here is the editor-in-chief of the journal which produced this press release. (Let us also note that this article appears also “with editorial adaptations by the ScienceDaily staff.”)

So what are we to believe? The Truth of the matter is that you simply cannot consume enough red wine to make any measurable difference in your metabolism. Red wine is being used to “sell” scientific research about a phytochemical (resveratrol) which just happens to appear in a minute concentration in the beverage, much the way images of scantily clad young women are used to sell beer, especially in places where such women appear in minute concentrations.

Should we forgive the science publicists? After all, they’re just trying to make research accessible.

No, I really don’t think we should. Headlines tend to create the culturally-accepted truth, especially when repeated without contest. The facts are never far from the headlines — follow along in my “heckling the science news” section below — and yet the media chugs down the “drink red wine for health!” meme faithfully.

Sites like Science Daily serve as repositories for science press releases, created by associations and institutions whose job it is to make an impact on awareness of scientific studies on behalf of their researchers.

There isn’t a scientist out there who would argue for the consumption of 1000 bottles of red wine per day, so I find it hard to believe that there is any serious scientific discourse around that concept whatsoever. The blame falls on science marketing for perpetrating a very stupid myth, one I am intensely bored of reading about.

Heckling the Science News

Let’s refer again to Science Daily to see what the science marketing wonks want us to read about resveratrol:

  • 7 mentions of “red wine”.
  • 2 mentions of “grapes”.
  • 2 images of red wine.

If a picture says a thousand words, then that puts the count for “red wine” at about 2007.

Resveratrol Content Varies Among Red Wines (Apr. 20, 2007) — Red wine is being widely touted for its health benefits, but not all red wines may act the same according to researchers at the University of …

Who cares about which red wine has more resveratrol than others? If you had some stellar red wine with 2x concentration of the average red wine, that’s 500 bottles instead of 1000 bottles you’d be drinking per day. FAIL.

Red Wine Compound Shown To Prevent Prostate Cancer (Sep. 1, 2007) — Consuming a red wine compound called resveratrol may reduce the risk of developing prostate cancer, report researchers.

Red Wine’s Resveratrol May Help Battle Obesity (June 17, 2008) — Resveratrol, a compound present in grapes and red wine, reduces the number of fat cells and may one day be used to treat or prevent obesity…

Red Wine Compound Increases Anti-Tumor Effect of Rapamycin (Feb. 14, 2011)

“Red Wine Compound”? Why not “grape compound” or “mulberry compound”? Oh, right, because no one in the world is looking for vindication of their nightly mulberry habit. Well, except maybe giraffes.

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