Researchers find wine's possible lifesaver

February 23, 1993|By San Francisco Chronicle

University of California at Davis researchers have pinpointed a chemical component in red wine that they believe may offer those who drink moderate amounts of wine some protection from heart disease.

The results of the test tube study, to be published in the British medical journal Lancet, may help explain the "French paradox" -- how the wine-loving French can consume a diet rich in fats yet are three to five times less likely to die of heart disease than Americans.

Many scientists have suspected that the Gallic palate for red wine was related to their healthy hearts, and now the study at UC Davis provides a chemical basis for a link between red wine consumption and reduced clogging of the arteries.

But public health experts, who are outraged by attempts of the wine industry to tout the alleged health benefits of their products, remain skeptical and urge caution in interpreting the results.

"I've never met a doctor who would say that instead of exercising and cutting out fat, we want you to drink wine," said Hillary Abramson, spokeswoman for the Marin Institute, a foundation that studies alcohol problems.

"It's totally irresponsible to use these studies as public health messages because many people should simply never drink alcohol," she said.

The new research indicates that it may be a non-alcohol component of wine that confers a health benefit. The same possibly beneficial chemical found in wine is present in grape juice and in many fruits and vegetables.

The study headed by John Kinsella, dean of the UC Davis College of Agriculture and Environmental Science, identifies a class of chemicals known as phenolic flavonoids that occur in red wine.

In laboratory tests, the flavonoids were shown to retard oxidation, a process -- like rusting -- that turns bloodstream fats into a cruddy substance that builds up on the walls of blood vessels and arteries.

Mr. Kinsella and his colleagues drew blood from two healthy volunteers, extracted fats from the samples and mixed them in a test tube with flavonoids from a California-grown Petite Sirrah. The results showed that the effects of the chemicals were potent -- reducing oxidation by 60 percent in one sample, 98 percent in another.

"The data provide a plausible explanation for the French paradox," said Mr. Kinsella, although he cautioned that further research, including studies in animals and human beings, will be needed to confirm the theory.

Mr. Kinsella said it is "premature" for wine companies to make health claims for their product. Only after conclusive studies in human beings are completed would it be appropriate, he said. Nevertheless, his article concludes that "regular consumption of moderate amounts of red wine may reduce the instance of sickness and death from coronary artery disease."

Leroy Creasy, a professor of fruit science at Cornell University, is skeptical that flavonoids alone could be responsible for a beneficial health effect.

"Flavonoids are ubiquitous in higher plants," he said. "There are a lot of them in every plant and vegetable you ever ate. If flavonoids in wine reduce heart disease, any vegetable should have the same effect."

Mr. Kinsella said the flavonoids in fruits and vegetables may indeed be beneficial and may be responsible for the good health effects associated with them.

"That's the point," he said. "The National Academy of Sciences recommends fruits and vegetables five times a day."

The Davis researchers have also found evidence -- yet to be published -- to support work by Mr. Creasy that another chemical found in red wine, resveratrol, may reduce cardiovascular disease.

Resveratrol, which is chemically similar to flavonoids, is a natural substance found in grapes that is apparently produced by the vines to ward off attacks from fungus. The same chemical is found in knotweed, a traditional Japanese folk remedy used to cleanse the blood.

Dr. Arthur Klatsky, a cardiologist with Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Oakland, said there is considerable evidence that the alcohol itself in wine has a beneficial effect on heart disease. Dr. Klatsky called the Davis study "interesting" but said more evidence is needed to prove the benefits of red wine. He recently reported at a scientific conference on a study of 80,000 Kaiser members that found wine drinkers had a lower risk of cardiovascular disease than those who drank beer or hard liquor, but there was no difference between those who drank red wine and those who drank white.

Dr. Klatsky said the apparent health advantage for wine may not be related to the wine but to the health habits of wine drinkers. He believes, but cannot prove, that wine drinkers have a lower risk of heart disease because they are better educated, more health-conscious, eat lower-fat diets, smoke less and exercise more often.

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