While there has been a lot of coverage in the press about the health benefits associated with moderate consumption of red wine, there has been less discussion of the health benefits associated with white wine. To find out more about the health benefits associated with white wine, VINE TALK consulted Dr. Philip Norrie, a Family Physician and Conjoint Senior Lecturer with the medical faculty at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Dr. Norrie is also a wine historian, a medical historian, and a winemaker.
VT: What evidence is there that moderate consumption of wine, whether red or white, is good for one’s health?
DN: In 1991, Professor Serge Renaud published a paper entitled “The French Paradox” in the Lancet, a leading medical journal. He observed that the French, despite eating a vascular disease “disaster diet” rich in cholesterol, have significantly less coronary heart disease than other similarly advanced countries which consume similar levels of saturated fat. The reason for this, according to Professor Renaud, was because the French drink more red wine. Since that time, medical and scientific studies have not only corroborated that consuming wine in moderation can reduce the incidence of vascular disease, but also cancer, neurodegenerative diseases (such as dementia), and macular degeneration.
Two important studies which have corroborated that moderate consumption of wine (whether red or white) has health benefits are the Copenhagen City Heart Study (1998) and the Zutphen Study (2000). The Copenhagen Study examined different effects of beer, wine, and spirits on the risk of stroke. Researchers found that intake of wine on a monthly, weekly, or daily basis was associated with a lower risk of stroke compared with no wine intake, and that there was no association between intake of beer or spirits and the risk of stroke. This led them to conclude that there are other compounds in wine, in addition to alcohol, that reduce the risk of stroke. The Zutphen Study tracked a group of men for forty years to study the impact of long-term alcohol intake and how types of alcoholic beverages consumed impacted cardiovascular mortality and life expectancy. Researchers found life expectancy was about five years longer in men who consumed wine compared with those who did not use alcoholic beverages.
VT: What substances in wine are beneficial for one’s health and how do they affect the body?
DN: First, wine contains alcohol which raises the good cholesterol (HDL) level and acts as an anti-coagulant (blood clotting preventer). Good cholesterol is beneficial because it clears away bad cholesterol from artery walls and takes it back to the liver for re-metabolism. In addition to containing alcohol, wine contains substances called antioxidants which inhibit bad cholesterol from being incorporated in the artery wall; antioxidants also prevent damage from free radicals (damaging “particles” that are a byproduct of normal cell functions) which help cause degenerative diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease.
Vitamins C and E are probably the most widely known antioxidants, but wine contains the strongest antioxidants in nature called resveratrol, quercitin and epicatechin, which are five times stronger than vitamin E. A study by Dr. Edwin Frankel of the University of California, Davis in 1994 showed that no matter how much vitamin E you take, it will only neutralize about 20% of the free radicals produced by oxidation (the natural process whereby the body “burns” energy), whereas wine can neutralize up to 100% of the free radicals produced by oxidation after a couple of glasses. It should also be noted that the fermentation process of converting grapes into wine enhances the antioxidant level many times, so that explains why wine is far superior for your health than drinking concentrated grape extract.
VT: How can white wine be just as good for your health as red wine if red wine contains more antioxidants, the compounds responsible for many of the health benefits associated with wine?
DN: The level of antioxidants in a particular wine is influenced by a variety of factors including the grape variety, region, vintage, climate, soil, storage in oak and filtration techniques. It is true that red wine typically contains more antioxidants than white wine because the antioxidant compound resveratrol is in the skins and seed of grapes, and red wines typically have extended contact with grape skins during fermentation. However, as indicated by a 1999 research paper published by Dr. Karl Jung and associates at Germany’s University of Mainz entitled “Moderate Red and White Wine Consumption and the Risk of Cardiovascular Disease,” white wine can deliver comparable or superior health benefits compared with red wine.
What matters is not the level of antioxidants, but how effective the antioxidants are at doing their job. A 1995 research study by Vinson and Hontz from the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, entitled “Phenol Antioxidant Index: Comparative Antioxidant Effectiveness of Red and White Wines,” found that although red wines had a higher level of antioxidants, white wines were “better antioxidants than red wines.” So why are the antioxidant molecules in white wine apparently more effective than those found in red wine even though they may be in greater number in red wine? The answer lies in research by Dr. Gordon Troup, a physicist at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. Dr. Troup used an electron spin resonance spectroscope to examine the actual size of the various antioxidant molecules in wine and showed that those in white wine are smaller, and thus more effective, because they can get further out into the tissues to do their job.
Thus it can be seen that it does not matter which color wine one drinks because both red and white wine contain alcohol and a sufficient amount of antioxidants. And once you get up to 100% antioxidant activity in your body’s tissues, anything extra is redundant anyway. What does matter is that one marries the right wine to the right food. Thus, the correct combination of wine and food is the most important criteria by which one chooses a wine—not just because it is a red!
For more information on the studies mentioned, see Dr. Norrie’s article Why White Wine is Just as Good for You as Red Wine.
Dr. Norrie, a Family Physician and a Conjoint Senior Lecturer at the Medical Faculty at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, is also a wine and medical historian. Dr. Norrie has written fifteen books on wine and medical history and has been made a member of the Renaud Society (named after Prof. Serge Renaud of the French Paradox fame) for his services to wine and health internationally. Dr. Norrie is also the inventor and patent holder of the world’s first high-dose resveratrol-enhanced wine, REW.