It's the Alcohol!

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Virtually everyone "knows" that red wine is the best type of alcoholic beverage to consume if you're concerned about health. After all, the French eat lots of cheese and other high fat foods, yet their rate of heart disease is lower than ours. This observation, known as the "French paradox," has been widely attributed to the red wine the French consume liberally. What is it about red wine that supposedly makes it superior to other alcoholic beverages? The benefits have been variously attributed to phenolic compounds like resveratrol, or to the antioxidants with which red wine supposedly is richly endowed. But, as with much other common knowledge, it's simply not true.

According to Dr. Eric Rimm of the Harvard School of Public Health (in a speech presented to media on March 28 in New York), there have been approximately thirty-four studies worldwide that examined the health effects of alcohol consumption. The great majority had the same result: moderate(1), consistent consumption of alcoholic beverages lowers the risk of heart disease. The results were the same, whether one examined beer consumers in Hawaii, French red wine imbibers, or Finnish distilled spirits consumers.

Alcohol's benefits are due to several effects on the body, Dr. Rimm noted. First, it increases blood levels of HDL (good) cholesterol; second, it slows the formation of blood clots; third, it increases insulin sensitivity; and fourth, it decreases inflammation.

And while it is true that even moderate alcohol consumption slightly increases the risk of breast cancer in some women, according to Dr. Rimm this effect is not universal. Apparently, the negative effect is due to alcohol inhibiting the activation of the B vitamin folate. Thus, in women whose folate intake is marginal, regular alcohol consumption causes a reduction in available folate. But, in women whose folate consumption meets recommended levels (400 micrograms per day), either from foods, supplements, or fortified foods, alcohol does not have this effect.

The take-home message is that, yes, moderate red wine consumption can be beneficial, but so can consumption of white wine, beer, and distilled spirits. There's no magic to red wine.

For more information about the health effects of beverage alcohol, see the ACSH publication, Moderate Alcohol Consumption and Health.

(1) Moderate consumption = 1 standard drink/day for women and up to 2 standard drinks/day for men. A standard drink contains 0.6 oz of alcohol: 12 oz of beer, 5 oz of wine, or 1.5 oz of 80 proof distilled spirits.

Ruth Kava, Ph.D., R.D., is Director of Nutrition at the American Council on Science and Health.