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Wine as Part of a Healthy Lifestyle: 2014 in Review - Prologue

“The complicated nature of both wine and the human body will make blanket statements about the health benefits of wine near impossible.”
Becca Yeamans


Each year in January it has been customary for me to offer a summary of the major, peer-reviewed, scientific studies published in the preceding year. As a retired physician, and believer that wine in moderation plays an important role in a healthy lifestyle, I have a dedicated interest in these studies that contribute to our current understanding of the roles that alcohol and wine play in our health. Each year, there are thousands of citations in the biomedical literature regarding alcohol, wine and health so this is obviously a prodigious undertaking. In the past, I have devoted an entire lengthy issue to the subject, but this year I will provide the information in segments over multiple issues so that the reader is not overwhelmed by the deluge of scientific reports and advice.

The key recurring word in any discussion of the possible health benefits of wine is moderation. The praise for and urging for moderation in alcohol consumption has been a refrain since antiquity. Clearly, those who preceded us were aware of a boundary between the health benefits of wine and hazardous imbibing. The term, hormesis, applies here, meaning a biological phenomenon in which the favorable effect of moderate dosage of a substance is toxic in higher doses. Over drinking of alcohol can lead to a number of very serious health problems: one is better off not drinking alcohol at all than drinking too much.

There are many challenges to performing medical research on the health benefits of alcohol and wine in this country. The Federal Government prohibits wineries from hinting at or promoting the health benefits of wine and currently, Federal money cannot be used to support alcohol research other than the treatment of alcohol addiction, and funding is available only for viticultural studies and examination of grapes, raisins and other non-vinification topics. Alcohol, including wine, is regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) which was established in 2002 under the Homeland Security Act. Jake Lorenzo, writing in Wine Business Monthly (December 2012) points out, “That means wine is considered dangerous and possibly subversive by our own government.”

The correct message from scientific research is often trumpeted incorrectly to the American public by slanderous headlines proclaiming that alcohol and specifically wine is not good for you. These headlines send a confusing message to the public and have a veil of Neo-prohibitionism. Rob McMillan notes, “Neoprohibitionism may be less visible, yet the underlying agglomeration of strange bedfellows isn’t yet dead.” It has been 25 years since the 60 minutes television program on the “French Paradox” alerted 20 million viewers to the possible health benefits of wine at a time when the wine industry was unsuccessfully trying to promote the health benefits of drinking in moderation. Despite the impact of that program, the public’s confusion about the possible health benefits of wine in moderation continues.

As a medical doctor, I have read a considerable amount of medical literature and scientific research on the relationship between alcoholic beverages and health, yet I find it exasperating to successfully merge the conflicting reports into a consistent message. Practically every published research study ends with disclaimers such as, “Further study is necessary,” “More research is needed to explain the results,” and “The results may be explained by biases and confounding.” The word “suggestive” or the two words “interpret cautiously” are often employed.

I know that we need more voices promoting the truth about the responsible consumption of wine. I hope that this feature in the PinotFile speaks clearly to this very complicated subject. There are few absolutes presented here, and readers are encouraged to individualize the vast amount of information as well as consult with their personal physician for advice on lifestyle, diet and drinking.

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