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The wine glass looks half full

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Not unexpectedly, the news media embraced and eagerly reported the latest revelation about the health benefits of red wine. The study, published in the online journal PLoS One this week, hinted that resveratrol, an antioxidant compound found in the skins and seeds of wine grapes, can boost cardiovascular health and slow aging in mice at lower doses than previously thought. Earlier studies have suggested that resveratrol helped mice run farther, stay slender, and stave off diabetes and cancer.

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This buzz about red wine reminds me of the media’s enthusiastic coverage of dark chocolate's effects. Several studies have suggested the antioxidant flavanols in dark chocolate can improve blood vessel function and reduce blood pressure.

Any story about red wine or dark chocolate, especially one that gives people an excuse to indulge, is going to be well-received. As I write this, the New York Times article on the recent red wine study has been hovering near the top of the newspaper’s list of most popular online stories.

But as we swash down red wine and gobble bon bons, we may be inclined to forget that, along with all those antioxidants comes a good dose of alcohol and saturated fat. Excessive alcohol consumption (more than two daily drinks for men or more than one daily for women) can lead to liver disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And recent studies suggest that one or two drinks a day may increase the risk of breast cancer.

And don’t forget the caveats associated with some of these studies. In most of the resveratrol studies (a notable exception being the recent PLoS study) mice were given massive quantities of compound. A human would have to guzzle at least several bottles of red wine a day to obtain a similar amount. And to reap the benefits of cocoa, you have to eat dark chocolate (preferably containing 70 percent cocoa), which tends to be bitter. With creamier chocolate the milk binds to the antioxidant compounds, making them unavailable to the body.

Finally, it is worth noting that the recent red wine study was partially financed by the Swiss DSM Nutritional Products, “the world's leading supplier of vitamins, carotenoids and other fine chemicals to the feed, food, pharmaceutical and personal care industries,” according to the company’s website. Similarly, several studies on cocoa flavanols have been funded by Mars Inc., the maker of chocolate products. So while it's tempting to toast to the promising results from these studies, the bottom line is more bittersweet.

By Coco Ballantyne
Photo by miss karen

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