As featured in the last issue of Longevity: The French Paradox is the observation that the French suffer a relatively low incidence of coronary heart disease, despite having a diet relatively rich in saturated fats. When a description of this paradox was aired in the United States on the CBS network news programme 60 Minutes in 1991 with the speculation that red wine decreases the incidence of cardiac diseases, the consumption of red wine increased dramatically and some wineries began lobbying for the right to label their products “health food.”
But what it is it about wine that produces this effect? One of the components of wine that is potentially related is resveratrol, a chemical compound produced in grapes when under attack by bacteria or fungi, its subsequent accumulation helping to slow or stop the infection. Resveratrol becomes absorbed into red wine during the contact the fermenting juice has with the skins.
In experiments on mice, doses of resveratrol led to better cardiovascular health but also acted as cancer preventative agent, limited the damage caused by strokes as well as having anti-inflammatory properties.
Unfortunately, however, it remains a mystery whether wine drinkers benefit from resveratrol. In human terms, the amounts of resveratrol that was used to produce the amazing benefits in mice would require drinking hundreds – or even thousands – of glasses of wine per day. There is nevertheless some speculation that resveratrol make have a cumulative effect on human health.
It’s also worth noting that levels of resveratrol vary greatly across different types of red wine. Wines made from thin-skinned Pinot Noir will have higher levels than those from thick-skinned varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon. Growing conditions play a role, too. Wines produced in cooler regions or areas with greater disease pressure will have higher resveratrol concentrations than wines from hot, dry climates.
While resveratrol has received a lot of media coverage in recent times, many reputable scientists increasingly discount it as a factor behind the French Paradox and instead point to procyanidins (a type of polyphenol and generally responsible for wine’s colour and flavour) as the active ingredient involved.
Perhaps the most high-profile advocate of procyanidins is Professor Roger Corder, based in the United Kingdom and author of The Red Wine Diet. First he identified procyanidins as the principal polyphenol in red wine responsible for maintaining the overall health of veins and arteries and then he demonstrated that these were are present at higher concentrations in wines from areas of southwestern France and Sardinia, where traditional production methods involving long post-fermentation macerations ensure that these compounds are efficiently extracted. These regions also happen to be associated with increased longevity in the population.
In the book called The Red Wine Diet, Corder argues that drinking the right kinds of red wine and eating procyanidin-rich foods such as dark chocolate, apples, and berries can help us live to a ripe old age. The good news for wine lovers is that’s theoretically possible to get your entire daily requirement of procyanidins from wine alone, two small glasses being sufficient. However, it’s Corder’s advice that we should eat a diet with many sources of procyanidins because of the complexity of the chemistry and our incomplete knowledge of all the potential benefits.