CHEERS: Is red wine good for you or not? The people of Tuscany think so.THE secret of a long and healthy life is somewhere in these hills. Maria Pio Fusi looks out over the olive groves and vines owned by her son in the Chianti region of Tuscany and smiles.
‘‘Our doctors tell us to drink a little wine every day, one or two glasses for our health,’’ she says, as a pensioner in a place where life expectancy is among the highest in Europe. ‘‘Wine is the secret of life.’’
Scientists have agreed with this notion for the past 20 years, and even identified a miracle ingredient in red wine that makes people healthier. But now a paper has been published insisting that resveratrol – as it is called – actually has no effect at all.
‘‘Red wine will not make you live longer,’’ screamed one headline, only months after different scientists said it could help us live to 150. This is confusing enough to make anyone reach for the bottle. So which is true? Is red wine good for you or not?
Frankly, this is a matter close to my heart. As a lover of the stuff, I need to know as much as you probably do. I want to hear what the scientist who wrote that paper has to say for himself. I’m also prepared to pursue this story fearlessly and selflessly all the way to the source – even if it means travelling through a landscape of staggering beauty, among the rolling hills of Tuscany, to reach the little medieval market town of Greve in Chianti, south of Florence.
This is where Signora Fusi’s son owns a vineyard, with views down over the tumbling terracotta roofs of the town. They produce Chianti Classico, the deep and rich wine that makes your soul sing. The local olive oil is famously pure. The meat is wonderful. There are black and white truffles to be found and savoured. Small wonder that discerning researchers chose to come here to study the drinking habits and health of the older folk.
In 1998, they took urine samples from 783 men and women over the age of 65 in this town and a nearby village and examined them for levels of resveratrol. This is one of the natural chemicals found in the skin of the red grape and it is an antioxidant, which neutralises the oxygen molecules that damage human cells. The claims made for resveratrol have become increasingly bold in recent years – including that it can boost memory, arrest the failure of eyesight and hearing, lower cholesterol, restore muscle strength, reduce the signs of ageing and even prolong life. All of which makes it sound like the modern equivalent of Doctor Snakeoil’s Miraculous Cure-All Tonic.
But these claims are based on tests with mice. The team led by Professor Richard Semba of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore wanted to see the effects on humans, so they compared the urine samples with the results of a detailed health survey that the same pensioners took three times in nine years. They expected those with more resveratrol to live longer, suffer less inflammation and be less likely to suffer from cancer or heart disease.
‘‘We were expecting a connection because that is what you hear, that’s a lot of the hype,’’ says Semba. ‘‘But in retrospect it was a leap of faith to go from tests on mice and cellular models to expect an effect like this in humans. It was a complete wash, actually. There was no association.’’
Robert Corder, professor of experimental therapeutics at Queen Mary, University of London, is not at all surprised.
‘‘The levels of resveratrol in many red wines are often undetectable and negligible. ’’
Corder is the author of The Red Wine Diet, which sounds perfect to me, but the title is misleading.
‘‘I am a big fan of wine but I strongly advocate that you should drink less, of better quality.’’
He insists that the pips and not the skins of the grapes are the source of good health. Unfortunately, to get any benefit you need to be drinking wines fermented longer using traditional techniques and that are rich in tannins – and therefore a little too harsh for normal tastes: ‘‘Your average wine does not have enough flavonols in it to confer any kind of health benefit.’’
The other problem is that consumers have become so convinced that red wine is somehow medicinal that we are glugging back too much of it.
But what about the Italians? They drink far more wine than us per person and they also live longer. The answer is that they drink a little every day, rather than saving it all up for the weekend and going on a binge, says Corder. The London Sunday Telegraph