Published January 15, 2011

Add health benefits to the list of what’s good about Washington State’s grape industry. Moderate consumption of alcohol—especially red wine, and to a lesser degree grape juice—really is good for you, says a leading health researcher, more than 20 years after he first espoused the ­concept.

Washington’s grape industry, with its value-added impacts of tourism and tax revenues, is already one of the agricultural darlings of the state. But a glass a day of wine could also help keep Washingtonians healthy, and keep wine sales and the industry strong.

Dr. Curtis Ellison of Boston University School of Medicine told grape growers attending the Washington State Grape Society’s annual meeting in Grandview last November that he first became interested in the French Paradox while traveling in southern France. Epidemiological studies in the 1970s were beginning to find a link between reduced heart attacks and alcohol consumption, but it was his France trip that intrigued him with the country’s lower incidence of heart disease despite other risk factors, such as a diet high in saturated fat.

He met Dr. Serge Renaud, scientist from France’s Bordeaux University who is said to have coined the term “French Paradox.” Renaud shared his interest in lifestyle and health, and they planned an international study to further examine the observation that French people suffered fewer heart attacks despite their high-fat diet. But Ellison said that during the review of their grant proposal for funding from the National Institute of Health, the project was dismissed. “NIH didn’t want to support anything that showed moderate drinking was healthy. So we had to look elsewhere for funding.”

About the same time, Maury Safer of the television show 60 Minutes visited France and heard that the French don’t get heart attacks. In 1991, CBS aired the French Paradox segment, which included interviews of Ellison and Renaud. At in the end of the show, Safer held up a glass of red wine and said, “So, the answer to the riddle, the explanation of the paradox, may lie in this inviting glass.”

“Americans went crazy,” Ellison said, adding that red wine sales immediately jumped by 40 percent nationwide. More than 30 million viewers watched the show. “They’d never heard anything like this, that wine was good for them.”

Wine groups lobbied for the inclusion of health benefits on their wine labels, and interest in studying wine, phenols, and other wine components and health skyrocketed. But there were detractors, groups looking for other reasons to explain that it wasn’t the alcohol but something else that must be reducing the heart disease. Many said that ­coronary heart disease in France was underreported.

Ellison didn’t get the backlash from scientists after the show that he feared. “Because they already knew the health benefit, but they’d been withholding the information from the public for many years.”

Decades of study

More than 20 years and thousands of epidemiological studies later, Ellison is more convinced there are health benefits to moderate consumption of wine and alcohol. He points to studies that have now identified that the pattern of consumption is more important than the amount—that regular but moderate consumption, five to seven days a week had lower heart disease rates than the irregular drinker who drinks only on weekends. And, that drinking with meals may be the best, though there are fewer studies that have examined such factors.

Many of the mechanisms identified that are at work in the body are transient effects and only last for several hours, Ellison said. He explains that red wine makes the platelets in the blood “less sticky” and less likely to form a clot, and boosts the good blood lipid levels while lowering the bad, but it isn’t an everlasting effect.

“Daily is preferable, like the French,” he said, “but the key is moderation.”

He notes that the greatest protection from coronary heart disease is from red wine, but all alcohol protects from heart disease. White wine is healthy, just not as good as red. And, there is some protection from grape juice.

Grape juice has many of the same good things in it as wine—polyphenols, resvertrol, and antioxidants—but not in the same amounts. In studies that compared wine to grape juice, it took more grape juice to achieve the same effects, he said. The alcohol tends to enhance the effects of the wine, so instead of four or five ounces of wine, it took a quart of grape juice to achieve the same results.

“So, if you don’t consume alcohol, make sure you drink a good, dark glass of grape juice because it does have some benefit,” Ellison said.

Other benefits

Ellison, who has devoted much of his career to the study of alcohol and health, said that the health benefits aren’t limited to heart disease. Other health benefits from ­moderate consumption of alcohol include:

  • reduced risk of developing diabetes
  • reduced risk of cognitive disorders (dementia, Alzheimer’s)
  • decreased rate of obesity
  • decreased incidence of viral, infectious diseases
  • reduced risk of kidney disease

“Wine, in particular, decreases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s,” he said, but added that negative aspects of alcohol may include a slight increase in the risk of breast and colon cancer in some people.

Studies from the American Cancer Society that looked at all causes of death found that death rates dropped in those that drink in moderation compared to nondrinkers, he said. One comparison found that of wine drinkers, half were still alive at the age of 82; of beer and wine drinkers, half were alive at 80; and for those with no alcohol consumption, half were still alive at 75.

Another study that looked at five factors associated with healthy living (lifestyle, lean body, exercise, nonsmoking, and a Mediterranean-type diet low in fat with fruits and vegetables), found when moderate consumption of alcohol was added, those meeting the five factors had 70 to 75 percent less heart disease compared to healthy people who didn’t drink that had only a 60 percent lower risk of heart disease.

Ellison recently helped launch the International Scientific Forum on Alcohol Research, and serves as codirector of the effort that is bringing together an international group of scientists to critically review emerging new reports and data on wine, alcohol, and health.