Wine Trader Magazine

There's More to Wine Than Good Taste and Antioxidants

Until recently, we didn't know that the hundreds of compounds in wine did anything other than give wine its superb flavor, aroma and hue. Then we learned that these compounds provide more than aesthetic effects. During these past few years scientific evidence has suggested that the blend of organic compounds swirling in every glass of wine may be a potent source of antioxidant protection.

Now we are just starting to learn that antioxidant activity may be just one of the functions wine compounds perform.

dotTrans-Resveratrol: Antioxidant and Anti-Estrogendot

Last time we considered the promise of wine-based antioxidants. This time we are going to take a closer look at one of the studies that we mentioned because it turns out that the key protective functions discovered for resveratrol are not as an antioxidant but as an anti-estrogen.

This recent study from researchers at Old Dominion University found that trans-resveratrol, a phenolic compound found in both red and white wine, possesses anti-estrogenic properties which may be involved in the reduction of breast cancer risk. Trans-resveratrol was found to be "cytotoxic" contributing to breast cancer cell death and to prevent estrogen binding, which may otherwise promote harmful cell growth.

According to lead researcher Roy L. Williams, Ph.D., phytoestrogens such as trans-resveratrol may provide an "essential piece of the puzzle" to help explain studies finding moderate wine consumption to be associated with a lower risk of overall mortality and potentially lower rates of breast and prostate cancer. Dr. Williams discussed his most recent findings at a National Press Club conference in Washington, D.C., on Monday, May 12 as part of Wine Institute's annual Washington week. Dr. Williams's research abstract will be published later this summer by the Virginia Academy of Science. Dr. Williams has also been invited to present his study at the annual meeting of the American Society of Enology and Viticulture in New York in July.

Dr. Williams points out that trans-resveratrol is only one of a family of phytoestrogens that may have anti-estrogenic properties that enable the compounds to effectively bind to estrogen receptors helping to "modulate estrogen levels," which, when too high, may lead to the development of breast cancer. New results from Williams' in vitro study, conducted at Old Dominion's Enology Research Facility along with colleague Mark Elliot, Ph.D., found that trans-resveratrol was nearly as effective with regard to cytotoxicity as Tamoxifen, a clinically prescribed breast cancer drug, and more effective than the phytoestrogen known as genistein, found in soy products. Depending on the rate of absorption, says Williams, "Moderate consumption of wine could provide some beneficial effects against hormone-dependent cancers such as breast cancer."

This current research is the first to identify trans-resveratrol's potential role in breast cancer prevention, and is the third study in the past six months associating anti-cancer effects with wine compounds. This work now establishes a dual function for trans-resveratrol as a phytoestrogen capable of favorably affecting breast cancer as well as an antioxidant, as earlier studies have indicated, potentially contributing to a reduced heart disease risk.

dotNew Test Finds High Antioxidant Activity Fordot
California Wines

Whatever new direction research on wine compounds may take it is important to continue to explore their antioxidant potential. Antioxidants prevent the oxidation of unhealthy LDL cholesterol into plaque, the substance that clogs arteries and contributes to cardiovascular disease. Antioxidants also have been shown to protect cells against the destructive activities of molecules called free radicals. These free radicals, whether produced by the body's own metabolism, carcinogens or radiation, can attack DNA in cells through the oxidation process. The genetic mutation that can result plays a key role in the development of cancer. Scientists generally agree that dietary antioxidants appear to help prevent both heart disease and cancer, the leading causes of death in the U.S., by protecting the body from oxidative damage.

A new antioxidant test developed by Randox Laboratories in the United Kingdom should assist research efforts in this area. The commercially available test kits can measure total antioxidant status (TAS) in any beverage. Preliminary tests so far have rated red wines among the highest, with California reds noted to have particularly high antioxidant content.

dotSome Scientists Still Question Effects Of Winedot

Most scientists today accept without question the fact that moderate alcohol consumption can reduce the risk of heart disease. Many scientists also acknowledge that moderate drinkers enjoy a reduced risk for premature death from all causes. One area that remains controversial at this time is the issue of additional benefits reported for wine drinkers. Some researchers continue to maintain that there are no additional benefits despite the convincing number of studies reporting that moderate wine consumers fare better than consumers of all other beverages. Other researchers are willing to concede that wine drinkers are healthier but they attribute this to factors other than wine itself, such as higher levels of education and income among wine drinkers and/or the pattern of consuming wine with meals which optimizes alcohol's favorable effect on dietary fats.

There is no question that there is some truth to all of the above. A significant portion of the benefits described for wine no doubt come from the ethyl alcohol component. Drinking wine at mealtimes, a healthy lifestyle and comfortable living conditions all contribute most certainly to longevity. But acknowledging these factors does not mean one can discount the role of wine-based phenolic compounds may play in improving health.

dotNIAAA To Sponsor Antioxidant Researchdot

The whole subject of antioxidants in wine is of great current interest to the scientific community with strong opinions on both sides. Clearly more research is needed to verify from the perspective of the scientific community the biological activity of compounds in wine. We hope that we will soon be able to have the scientific proof we need to continue our education efforts in this vital area. Later this summer the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) will announce a new research grants program dedicated to funding research on antioxidants and their properties in beverages containing alcohol. Of course, no one can predict the outcome of scientific research but we are confident based on the evidence we have seen to date that there will be exciting results to discuss when these studies are completed. Whether these studies will venture into the health protective effects of wine compounds that do not fall into the antioxidant category remains to be seen. But the good news here is that there is so much more to discover and so much more to learn about this thousands of years old beverage.

Elisabeth Holmgren is the Director of the Department of Research and Education at Wine Institute. She is responsible for developing and managing public policy, research and education programs related to the wide variety of health and social issues that impact the wine industry.

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For additional information on any of the research studies mentioned in this article, please contact the Department of Research and Education at Wine Institute at (415) 512-0151.

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Latest Update: October 31, 1997