A perfectly timed glass of wine can do wonders for the soul.
But according to healthy eating guru Professor Tim Spector, that drink could also have a remarkable effect on the body, as it could be packed with “magical properties” that help protect it from serious illness.
With that advice, however, comes a warning: not all wines are equally good for us. Some can contain as much sugar as cola, while others contain allergens, and many lack those essential chemical ingredients that boost the immune system to fight disease and improve mental health.
Prof Spector, the author of Food For Life: The New Science Of Eating, says, “Drink wine for pleasure, but in the back of your mind think, “Could I try different bottles or types that might be healthier for me?” ‘
Here’s what the science says about the body-stimulating bottles we should be picking up.
Prof Spector, the author of Food For Life: The New Science Of Eating, says, “Drink wine for pleasure, but in the back of your mind think, “Could I try different bottles or types that might be healthier for me?” (file image)
Cool red with the magic touch
The main “magic” ingredient in wine is a chemical called resveratrol, and by far the highest doses are found in red wine.
This is because resveratrol is found in the skin of grapes and, unlike white wine production, stays in contact with the mixture in bottled reds.
Research from the highly respected Mayo Clinic in Minnesota shows that resveratrol can help prevent damage to blood vessels, reduce low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol) and prevent blood clots.
Research at the highly respected Mayo Clinic in Minnesota suggests resveratrol may help prevent damage to blood vessels (file image)
The scientists also say these benefits occur because resveratrol is an antioxidant that may help protect the lining of blood vessels in the heart.
Grape plants produce resveratrol as a fungicide to protect their fruit from mold. Grape varieties that grow in colder, moister climates are more susceptible to mold and thus produce more resveratrol.
That’s why pinot noir wines rank highest in resveratrol – these red grapes are usually planted the most northerly. They are also thought to taste best when grown in cooler climates.
Since resveratrol is found in the skin of the red grape, generally the darker the red wine, the higher the resveratrol content. Other wines with a high resveratrol content are malbec and petite sirah.
Drinking more means a happy gut
prof. Spector believes that much of wine’s health-promoting magic stems from its ability to increase healthy levels of microorganisms in our digestive system.
In 2019, he led a study of more than 900 female twins at King’s College London, which found that those who drank red wine had greater diversity in their digestive systems – a sign of good gut health – compared to non-red wine drinkers.
Drinking red wine also showed a link with lower levels of obesity and “bad” cholesterol, the journal Gastroenterology reported.
“Despite the alcohol feeding your gut microbes, they pay you back down the chain by helping your immune system and heart and metabolism in general,” says Prof. Spector.
But instead of recommending a particular red wine, he urges us to try as many different varieties as possible. ‘Diversity is important. Having a range of different grape varieties in your diet means you’re going to be helping different gut microbes in you. It increases your intestinal health and diversity.’
A hangover or sulfites?
Sulfite chemicals occur naturally in most wines. But they are also added as a preservative to help preserve their color and flavor.
The problem is that sulfites are an allergen. People who have sulfite intolerances, especially if they have asthma, may experience wheezing when exposed to the chemicals. However, serious attacks are very rare, according to the charity Allergy UK.
People who are sulfite intolerant are more likely to get headaches or feel dehydrated after drinking sulfate-rich wine — symptoms consistent with a hangover.
Drinking at work?
Some scientists believe that the alcohol in wine itself is the main health-promoting ingredient, perhaps in combination with chemicals such as resveratrol.
As the Mayo Clinic experts point out, alcohol in moderation can raise your “good” HDL cholesterol, reduce blood clots, help prevent artery damage caused by high levels of LDL “bad” cholesterol, and perhaps protect the lining of arteries.
The incidence of sulfite sensitivity in the general population is estimated to be about two percent, but can be as high as 13 percent in asthmatics.
Again, red wines win here, as white wines tend to have more sulfites—sweet wines contain significantly more than both.
Some labels say ‘no added sulfur’ (often labeled as NAS), yet they may still contain naturally occurring sulfites as a result of the fermentation process. Sulfite-free wines are available at most supermarkets, such as Sainsbury’s So Organic No Sulfur Added Fairtrade Shiraz and Morrisons’ Carta Roja Pura Jumilla Organic Wine.
The organic myths
Many argue that organic wines offer a kind of “get out of jail free” card – in the form of smoother hangovers and no pesticides to upset the stomach.
However, others disagree. Professor Andrew Waterhouse, a wine expert at the University of California, says: ‘There is no evidence that your organic wine hangover will be any less severe.’
A study, published by Italian researchers in the journal Nutrients in 2019, disputes this. It claims to have shown that people absorb less alcohol from organic wine than from standard wine due to the different chemical mixtures.
As for fewer pesticides, experts say only extremely low pesticide residues on grapes survive the fermentation processes involved in winemaking. Scientifically, it is very difficult to prove or disprove adverse effects of low exposure to pesticides – the doses come from many different sources and only build up slowly.
If you’re concerned about pesticides, wine merchants should be able to recommend products from growers that minimize the use of synthetic chemicals.
How much and when?
Hippocrates, the ancient Greek father of modern medicine, said, “Wine is a wonderful thing for man, both in health and in disease, when properly administered.”
Prof Spector agrees, saying, “We’ve seen a reduction in heart disease if you drink less than two glasses of wine a day.”
A healthy dose of red wine for men is one or two small glasses a day. Only one glass a day is recommended for women, as the female body generally has a lower water content, leading to a higher concentration of alcohol.
prof. Spector also thinks we should enjoy a glass earlier in the evening: ‘There’s quite a bit of evidence that late night drinking puts you to sleep, but interferes with your sleep quality. We should promote wine early on as an aperitif and maybe not at the very end with cheese, as I do, and overdo it.’
… but beware of the hidden sugar
Red wines tend to be much drier in taste – the drier a wine, the less sugar it contains, as the yeast used in fermentation has eaten up the sugars in the grapes (file image)
The amount of sugar in a bottle can vary from 4g per liter to 220g. Red wines are generally the healthiest, with an average of 5 grams per liter.
Red wines tend to be much drier in taste – the drier a wine, the less sugar it contains, as the yeast used in fermentation has eaten up the sugars in the grapes. Low sugar red wines include cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, sangiovese, tempranillo, merlot and malbec.
Dry white wines also have less sugar, with German Riesling containing about 10 g per liter. Moderately sugary white wines are sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and pinot gris.
If you want lower sugar sparkling wines, go for the extra dry – brut and extra brut. Dessert wines inevitably pile on the sugar at up to 200g per liter – about the same level as a can of Coke.
Also pay attention to the calorie content – some alcohol contains seven per gram. The stronger your drink, the more pounds you can pile on.