Raise a Glass to Lower Cholesterol

Is this simply a highly sophisticated plot devised by Al-Qaeda operatives to weaken the bodies and workaholic tendencies of otherwise intelligent Americans? Can we even remotely imagine that something which provides profound hedonistic pleasure simultaneously benefits our physical well-being? Can’t a physician have his license revoked for even insinuating such heresy?

Those are the queries being posed by serious gourmands everywhere who bear a personal history of guilt, denial, and compromise in response to the overwhelming evidence that any ingested substance that makes you happy is shortening your life. The half-life of a gastronome is measured inversely to his megabites of pleasurable tastes. 

However, in 1991, the clouds parted perceptibly to reveal the “French Paradox,” the curiously long lifespan of a Frenchman despite his daily consumption of a stick of butter and copious amounts of other saturated fats. Theories regarding the cause of this apparent anomaly span from “low stress levels produced by extraordinary self-esteem” to the possible evolution of a DNA strain that can withstand even traditional French cuisine. But, the most plausible theory appeared to be that the daily consumption of red wine by the average Frenchman had a counter-balancing effect to his rich diet, reducing the incidence of heart disease.

These early findings prompted an enormous amount of research into the composition of wine and which of its properties was possibly wielding the bayonets against those low-density cholesterol particles that cling to our arteries. Over the ensuing 15 years, this research has produced a myriad of favorable findings, much of which is only gradually, and somewhat tentatively, surfacing in the medical journals.

The current position is that the benefits are sourced in two major components of wine, alcohol and polyphenols, or phenolics. The favorable effects of alcohol appear to be produced in common by wine, spirits, and beer, and, when consumed in moderation, significantly reduce the number of heart attacks and strokes. Virtually every study has verified that the occurrence of coronary disease is highest among heavy drinkers and abstainers. Moderation is presently deemed to be 2 glasses of wine per day for men and one glass for women. Much more than that on a regular basis results in a steady decline of the beneficial effects and can have serious consequences to the liver, mind, et al.

Apart from the alcohol, there is a growing body of evidence that wine has certain healthful qualities beyond those of spirits and beer. In recent years, the research has identified the likely benefactors to be the phenolics found in heavy concentrations in grape skins and seeds. These are transferred into the wine during fermentation and exist primarily in red wine, due partially to the early removal of skins in the process of making white wine. Phenolics are naturally produced chemical compounds, some of which, including resveratrol and catechins, act as very active antioxidants. These help neutralize free radicals, the charged molecules that damage the body’s cells and cause various cancers and heart disease.

The most profound findings have focused on resveratrol, which has been shown in laboratories to slow, or completely stop, the growth of cancer cells. Recent progress has now taken place in mice, with indications that resveratrol combats both the initiation and spread of certain prevalent forms of cancer. Research on humans is next on the agenda.

The most recent major study on the effects of resveratrol was conducted by Harvard Medical School, which published the results in Nature magazine in October 2006. It appears to confirm the same effects on mammals (in this case mice) found in earlier tests on fish and worms, that being the ability of resveratrol to extend life by negating the destructive impact of a high-fat diet (visions of Nirvana are creeping into my dreams). Those mice, which were given heavy doses of resveratrol and a high-fat diet, had a death rate 31% below those on the same diet without the supplement. The overall health of the treated mice, including the heart, liver, and other tissue, was almost identical to those mice on a standard diet (whatever that could be).

In its most simplistic form, this conclusion is the gourmand’s Holy Grail. As always, however, our emotions are being reined in by the “preliminary findings” caveat. The dosage of resveratrol in the experiment was 300 times that in a glass of red wine, requiring a daily liver transplant for those expecting to replicate these results with only wine. (This reminds me of the alarming death rate of mice in a published experiment on the ingestion of heavy metals several years ago. It turns out they were force-feeding these creatures with the equivalent of a Hummer per week.) Nevertheless, it has generated widespread optimism among even skinny intellectuals around the world that resveratrol is the real thing, and that moderate wine drinking is a very good addition to one’s daily regimen.

According to a Wine News article by Dr. Harvey Finkel, Clinical Professor of Medicine at Boston University, tests are showing that these antioxidants also benefit the cardiovascular system by impeding the artery-clogging attributes of LDL cholesterol and reducing the likelihood of blood clotting associated with heart attacks. A French study completed in 2002 found that moderate red wine drinkers produced higher levels of HDL (the good cholesterol) than non-drinkers, but didn’t identify the reason.

On an ancillary issue, another inquiry producing scintillating results involved the conundrum of why the caloric content of red wine did not generate a corresponding gain in weight by the consumer. It was determined that partial responsibility for this wonderful disparity lies with the catechin phenolic, which was shown to stimulate the burning of body fat.

Despite the caution voiced by the relevant community of scientists, a reasonably optimistic soul can develop a warm glow from these reports and others. The situation doesn’t warrant the abandonment of culinary discipline, but it sure is comforting to think that nature is once again trying to help us enjoy her bounty with impunity. Forever more, in my case, the thought of eating a sumptuous steak without a big red (phenolic-laden) wine will just seem downright irresponsible.