This is my second in a series of articles about the pleasantly surprising health benefits of some of our favorite indulgences. I hope you’ll read my related articles on coffee and tea, and chocolate. Wine drinking began more than 7,000 years ago in the mountainous region of Iran, where the wild grape Vitis vinifera grew. People discovered that breaking the skin of the grapes allowed the yeasts, which naturally gathered on ripening grapes, to mingle with the juice, thus starting the fermentation process that turns grape sugar to alcohol. By 2500 BC, the Egyptians were stomping grapes in wooden vats with their bare feet. The Greeks encouraged the production of wine in France and Italy, and from there viticulture slowly spread north. Medical researchers have known for some time that drinking alcohol in moderation has a beneficial effect on health, particularly on heart disease. In the early 1990s, researchers discovered the “French Paradox”: French people have a much lower risk of heart attack than Americans, despite similar dietary fat levels.
Wine drinkers appear to live longer than non-drinkers and people who drink other forms of alcohol. The American Heart Association guidelines recommend that people who drink do so in moderation—no more than two drinks per day for a man, one drink for a woman. Red wine is recommended for protection against colorectal cancer. Like coffee and tea, beer and wine are associated with a decreased risk of kidney stone formation. Researchers found a significant decrease in all-cause mortality among wine drinkers compared to non-wine drinkers at all levels of alcohol intake.
Light drinkers (one to seven drinks per week) had a lower risk of death from heart disease or cancer, but the risk was further reduced for light or moderate drinkers (eight to 21 drinks per week) who drank mostly wine. Heavy drinkers who drank wine were at less risk for death than heavy drinkers who avoided wine. Several large-scale studies link moderate wine drinking to lower mortality from heart disease and stroke. Wine, too, contains flavonoids. Grapes are about the only fruit that has resveratrol, a plant estrogen—a substance that acts like a hormone—so some people who do not drink wine may be able to gain some of the same benefits by eating grapes or drinking grape juice. Resveratrol has been shown to help slow the formation and growth of cancers.
Beer brewing became possible with the establishment of agricultural society and the cultivation of cereals such as barley and wheat. Around 4000 BC, the Sumerians discovered the effects of drinking gruel that had been left to ferment. This ale became more alcoholic once brewers began malting the barley. Germinating the grain, then drying and heating it so that the starch turned to sugar, produced a more powerful fermentation and stronger flavor. In northern Europe, where the cultivation of wine grapes was unknown, but where grain flourished, brewing probably developed independently.
It was a French doctor who discovered that yeast is the microorganism responsible for the fermentation process. Beer also reduced the risk of cardiovascular death. As with tea vs. coffee, it is uncertain whether the relative healthfulness of beer vs. wine might be due to social and economic factors. Wine drinkers were found to have higher IQs, more education, higher socio-economic status, and a better diet than beer drinkers. A recent study corrected for such factors finds no difference between the two. The definition of moderate is about the same for beer as for wine—one or two a day for men, one for women. In favor of beer, some of the nutrients in wine do not survive the filtering process. Barley and wheat, commonly used in beer making, are both loaded with a variety of vitamins that do survive fermentation and filtering. Too, many unfiltered beers are on the market. European peasants of previous centuries actually derived a major portion of their nutrition from beer. Is there any reason not to consume alcohol? Drinking in excess has a reversed effect on life expectancy. It can cause cancer, specifically breast cancer in women; the American Cancer Society recommends that women with an unusually high risk of breast cancer consider giving up alcohol. Those who should avoid alcohol include those with gastritis or liver disease; those on blood pressure medication; and, because alcohol has lots of calories, anyone with a tendency toward obesity. Otherwise, we can drink up without guilt. Cheers!