You only have to look at the eating habits of the people in the Mediterranean region, to understand the importance of moderation when it comes to dietary matters and health. The Mediterranean diet is not about counting calories; it is about healthy food choices, and a healthy choice includes a glass or two of rich, healthy red wine at mealtime. The French, famous for their production of red wine do not deprive themselves of food and wine, yet they have low rates of heart diseases and obesity, lower than other Northern European nations and the United States. Red wine’s most outstanding health claim, over the years, is the heart-healthy benefits of high levels of polyphenols.

Serge Renaud & The French Paradox

The situation in France is paradoxical, because even with the country’s high intake of wine and saturated fats, the nation boasts a reduced rate of cardiovascular disease. Responsible for the scientific impact of this French paradox was the scientific researcher Serge Renaud, a passionate advocate of red wine. The Frenchman studied medicine in Bordeaux, France then continued his studies with a doctorate in cardiovascular disease before focusing studies on nutrition and heart disease. In an interview on the CBS journalism program, 60 minutes, in 1991, the red wine hero presented data of his studies, making the bold thought-provoking statement that French people enjoyed better health because they had a moderate consumption of wine with their meals.

The Red Wine Health Experiment

Used to a Mediterranean diet, Renaud was struck by two things; first was the almost total absence of wine at mealtimes and secondly, the high coronary heart disease rates in America. He and colleagues at Bordeaux University had based their studies on three groups of middle-aged men in Eastern France, those who consumed alcohol moderately (two to three glasses of red wine per day) those who drank heavily and those who did not drink at all.

The researchers wrote in their report, “the results of the present study, appear to confirm the speculation that the so-called French Paradox is due, at least in part, to the regular consumption of wine.” Renaud and his colleagues claimed that red wine could reduce coronary heart disease by 40%.

There might have been many flaws in the argument at the time, but it sparked off an avid interest in red wine so profound that it boosted red wine consumption in the USA. Sales increased considerably but most importantly Renaud’s claims prompted numerous studies on the effect of wine and cardiac diseases. Granted, red wine might not have deserved all the credit and fuss it got at the time but thanks to these studies, we now know so much more about the potent antioxidants and the magic of polyphenols in red wine.

What Are Polyphenols?

Also referred to as phenolics and phenol, these chemical compounds largely contribute to the taste and color of wine, but they also give red wine that full-bodied character we appreciate, one that comes with lots of aromas. Red wine contains a lot more polyphenols than white wine, because the entire grape is used in the production of red wine, whereas with white wine, the skins are removed after the grapes are crushed. Also, with red wine, there is more absorption of the compounds from the skin during the fermenting period when skin is in contact with the must. In other words, when making red wine, the longer the fermentation period, the higher the phenolic content.

Polyphenols have anti-antioxidant properties, which means that they protect our cells from free radicals, those toxic compounds that our bodies are exposed to through pollutants, medicine and by- products or normal processes that take place. Excess free radicals are bad for our bodies because they damage our DNA and our cellular membranes.

The natural phenols that come from the pulp, the skin, and the seeds are divided into two groups – the flavonoids and the non-flavonoids. The majority of the phenolic content of red wine comes under the flavonoid classification, and they originate from the seeds, skin and stems of the fruit. Making the news these days is the polyphenol resveratrol, one of the main antioxidants, which scientist say protects us against heart disease.

How Does Resveratrol Work?

Although resveratrol in wine is not the sole component responsible for cardio-protective benefits, scientists focus more on it because it is most common in the grape skins with a high concentration in red wine. Scientists believe there are two mechanisms involved.

Firstly, resveratrol protects the linings of our arteries from bad cholesterol known to be a trigger for heart attacks. It does so by raising our level of good cholesterol (HDL) and by so doing, it stops the accumulation of bad cholesterol (LDL). This means that the fatty deposits, which can narrow and clog up our arteries, get reduced.

Secondly, red wine can help prevent thrombosis or the forming of blood clots. Blood clots close off our arteries, causing heart attacks. Resveratrol acts as an anticoagulant; it helps reduce the stickiness of blood platelets, preventing them from clumping together to form clots.

One British cardiologist so believes in the power of resveratrol that has been prescribing red wine for his patients for the last ten years. Cardiologist Dr. McCrea even prescribes red wine just as he would conventional medicine - precise measures at regular intervals. He believes that the antioxidant properties reduce the risk of a heart attack in half and cuts the risk of stroke by 20%. Dr. McCrea feels that the younger wines in screw top bottles have the highest anti-oxidant properties. The doctor who works at the Great Western Hospital in Swindon in south-west England says that hardly any of his patients who have a heart attack and go on to red wine come back to the hospital.

Extracting Polyphenols From Red Wine

So appreciated are the healthy benefits of polyphenols that INSERM, the French National Agricultural Research Institute collaborated with a French firm, VITIMED, to make a natural food product simply by extracting polyphenols from red wine. The product made from Cabernet-Sauvignon, red wine of the Languedoc-Roussillon region in South East of France is called Provinols™; it is natural, free of additives and contains 70% polyphenols. The manufacturers say the fine powder; dark red to purple in color, can be used as a nutritional ingredient as well as a dietary supplement.

Teetotalers might choose to replace their glass of red by 100 mg of Provinols™ but wine is a beverage we share with fine food and good company and besides, drinking red wine moderately is recognized as one of the key elements contributing to the French paradox. There’s still more to be learned about the chemicals in red wine, and yes, clearly red wine must be consumed moderately, but nothing beats a glass or two of red wine with friends. What better way to enjoy a great meal and a healthy heart?