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Why is red wine the healthy one?

“When it comes to harms or potential benefits, ethanol is ethanol.”

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Like dark chocolate and coffee, red wine vacillates between health food and vice. So let’s get to the bottom once and for all: Is red wine good for you? And if so, what makes red wine in particular so special?

Dr. Tim Naimi, director of the University of Victoria’s Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, breaks down the popular belief that when it comes to wine, red is healthier than white.

Is red wine good for you?

Much of the buzz about the health benefits of red wine come from the drink’s antioxidants, which are called polyphenols. Antioxidants have anti-inflammatory properties, which is one presumed benefit. There’s one specific type of polyphenol in red wine called resveratrol. This is the compound that’s popularly pointed to as the “heart-healthy” antioxidant, and it comes from red grape skins. White wine contains no resveratrol, and rosé wines contain lower levels than red.

Still, Naimi says there isn’t enough resveratrol in the amounts of red wine people drink for it to have any noticeable health benefit.

“If people wanted to get any benefits, they could just take pills,” he says. “I think the amount available in wine is probably not enough.”

Instead, the conflation of red wine and health may come, in part at least, from a correlation that people who are more likely to drink wine are also more likely to be healthy.

Does any wine offer health benefits?

Now that it seems the health benefits of red wine, as opposed to other types, are negligible, there’s a question of whether any wine fortifies the body. Naimi stipulates that there aren’t many studies directly comparing red and white wine with participants randomized between the two for researchers to observe meaningful differences. But a study like that may confirm what we already believe.

“The presumption would be that the health effects are similar,” he says. While differences are not always consistent across study outcomes, there may be simply too many extenuating factors besides wine color in determining one’s health.

Naimi points to social determinants, like income and education level, as a pillar in lifespan. One generalization is that people who earn higher incomes may be predisposed to drink red wine and might drink it more often than someone with a lower income.

“Red wine drinkers tend to be a bit healthier, wealthier, and happier, and it’s not because of the red wine,” he says. “Red wine is associated with that.”

Is it healthier to abstain than to drink in moderation?

All evidence so far points to the conclusion that wine offers no health benefits. Is it healthier to quit drinking entirely? That depends on what you mean by healthier.

If you’re hoping to improve your cholesterol levels or immunity, wine won’t do that. But consumed in moderate amounts, it can certainly have a relaxing effect on the mind and body. Quitting alcohol entirely may be the healthiest option for those with a history of addiction or heart conditions. However, it’s certainly still possible to live a healthy life that includes alcohol. It’s just that your body itself probably won’t be healthier because of that alcohol. In the end, it’s all the same vice.

“When it comes to harms or potential benefits, ethanol is ethanol.”

CHECK, PLEASE is an Inverse series that uses biology, chemistry, and physics to debunk the biggest food myths and assumptions.

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