Should the wine industry be talking about wine and health?

Friday, 21. July 2017 - 11:15

Davide Restivo/Wiki Commons 

Women who drink red wine have better orgasms

 Okay, I admit it. I just made that up as a satirical example of the kind of wild claims that are made for how wine is going to improve our wellbeing. Alzheimers, cancer, heart disease, ingrowing toenails… you name it, wine will set you right.

You might think I’m exaggerating, but after writing that first paragraph, I’ve just done what all investigative journalists are supposed do while putting together a convincing case for their readers. I googled ‘better orgasms’ and wine’.

Thank goodness I did that. Otherwise, I’d never have known that in 2009, researchers in Chianti discovered that “regular moderate intake of red wine is associated with higher… scores for both sexual desire, lubrication, and overall sexual function as compared to the teetotaller status”.

Even more spookily, the Italian academics zoomed in on precisely the same demographic group as I did. Their study did not pay any attention to the effect of red wine on men: it was focused on 798 women aged between 18 and 50. (Wine-loving male readers will be relieved to learn from the report’s authors that “some evidence does exist for a positive correlation between moderate wine intake and men's sexual health.”)

But of course, my Google result is not surprising. Name any major vineyard region across the globe and you’ll probably find a local university that’s carried out some kind of study into wine and health. Almost invariably, the results confirm the basic hypothesis that wine drinkers are healthier than teetotallers. One day, I guess I’ll read of a paper being published in Bordeaux confirming the link between white wine and haemorrhoids in middle aged men, but I’m not holding my breath.

The trouble with most of these reports is that, irrespective of the qualifications of their earnest authors, they’re academically questionable. People who drink moderate amounts of wine are not necessarily the same as teetotallers apart from the alcohol. As critics of many wine-and-health studies have pointed out, there may often be health-related reasons for abstaining from alcohol.

Enjoying a glass or two of wine per day may well be associated with a happy, socially-balanced life – without necessarily being responsible for that life. A couple who fall into bed and have a great time after splitting a bottle of wine may owe a lot of their fun to the uninhibiting effects of the alcohol. In other words, their experience might have been just as pleasurable if they’d opted for a couple of gin and tonics or, given its widespread decriminalisation in the US, some recreational marijuana.

The first problem I have with the wine industry promoting the supposedly healthful aspects of wine is that it often simply legitimises similar claims by other alcoholic beverages. Another brief dip into Google reveals, for example, that “Italian researchers found that moderate beer drinkers had 42% lower risk of heart disease compared to non-drinkers.”

More crucially, however, it also tends to irritate the medical authorities who have some statistics of their own with which the wine-is-good-for-you brigade will struggle to compete.

The European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) study, for example, followed 521,000 people over a period of nearly 15 years and found clear links between throat, bowel and breast cancer among regular consumers of various forms of alcohol.

If research involving half a million people is not convincing enough, the World Cancer Research Fund recently pooled 119 studies covering more than 12 million women and 260,000 cases of breast cancer. The findings were quite clear: 10g of ethanol – the equivalent of half a glass of wine – increased the risks of a premenopausal woman getting breast cancer by 5%.

To be fair to the medical authorities who are often painted as spoilsports, the UK National Health Service website quotes Kevin McConway, Emeritus Professor of Applied Statistics at The Open University, saying "Any increase is a bad thing, but it's only one more out of the 100 women, and that has to be set against whatever pleasure the women might obtain from their drinking.”

Which, I guess, brings us back to the beginning of this column.
Robert Joseph