Article By: Harvey Finkel, MD
There's been a lot of talk lately about avoiding alcohol - the bete noire of many - while still preserving the health benefits of wine, a sort of having your antioxidant and not drinking it too. Grape juice, dealcoholized wine, and resveratrol capsules are being promoted as more temperate, more healthful alternatives to wine. They certainly don't pass the taste test. Let's critically examine what alcohol brings, particularly to wine, most particularly to the health of the wine drinker.
Alcohol, that is, ethyl alcohol (ethanol), contributes body and flavor to wine, helps to preserve and enliven it, and, through its volatility, enables the all-important bouquet to bloom.
Alcohol is reckoned by medical scientists to account for at least 50 to 60 percent of the many and now-familiar health benefits of wine consumption. Some stubbornly insist it is all alcohol. Polyphenolic antioxidants take care of most of the remainder.
Some of the salubrious effects involve a joint venture between alcohol and polyphenols.
Most of the studied health benefits of drinking concern the cardiovascular system, the heart and blood vessels, especially the arteries, which vitally supply the organs and tissues of the body with oxygen, nutrients and defenses against diseases and injuries. Moderate drinking appears to reduce atherosclerotic disease - heart attack, stroke and related - by more than 40 percent, and probably alleviates the ravages of aging, cancer, dementia (including Alzheimer's disease), immune dysfunction, inflammation, cataract formation, and other degenerative diseases. Recent research suggests that wine consumption might lead to increased life span.
Immoderate drinking, in contrast, damages many body organs, impairs health, hastens death, and fosters antisocial consequences. Alcohol is the only toxic component of wine, but it is a matter of quantity.
Now there is additional evidence that alcohol can be considered essential to the beneficial effects of wine upon health, and, therefore, that efforts to eliminate alcohol are ill conceived. Research at the US Department of Agriculture laboratory, published recently by Chanjirakul, et al., in the journal of the science of food and agriculture, demonstrates that alcohol promotes the antioxidant capacity of berries, and enhances their resistance to decay in so doing. Also, it has been thought for some years that the alcohol elaborated during fermentation improves the extraction of healthful polyphenols from grape skins.
The moral seems clear to me: spare the alcohol and lose much of the pleasure and healthfulness of wine. Just don't go too far.