Is there such a thing as a healthy red wine?

Spoiler alert: there is. Red wine can be heart-healthy, but only in moderation.

If you’re a fervent red wine fan, you might be pleased to know that drinking a glass of red wine (five ounces) may provide certain health benefits, including anti-carcinogenic and anti-inflammatory effects, as well as improved metabolic health and glucose management. The health benefits of red wine are mainly derived from the antioxidants and flavonoids — resveratrol and condensed tannins — found in red grapes, which are used in their entirety (skin and seeds alike) to make red wine. These bioflavonoids give the wine its deep, rich colors as well as the medicinal benefits, which white wine does not confer because the latter lacks antioxidants (due to the early removal of grape skin and seeds). The healthiest red wine is made with high-quality grapes, grown without the use of pesticides or chemicals, and contains fewer sulfites, which traditional wine producers add for longer wine preservation.

However, touting the health benefits of 1-2 glasses of red wine per day can also lead to irresponsible hype if the comments are not hedged by mentioning the fact that drinking more than a modest amount of wine (or any other alcoholic beverages) wreaks physiological havoc on your body and brain. Excessive alcohol consumption is directly associated with huge costs (as measured in dollars, illness and death) to individuals, families and society from the associated diseases — alcoholism, heart damage, fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, cirrosis, pancreatitis, many cancers (such as breast and colorectal cancer), a host of infections and immune disorders — that such drinking triggers or directly causes.

What makes a healthy red wine?

One of the main reasons why red wine can be heart-healthy is the antioxidants found in it. Specifically, some of the polyphenols, known as flavonoids — derived from grapes, grape skin and grape seeds — protect against harmful conditions and diseases that may affect your body. Most notably, resveratrol and tannins (including quercetin, catechins, epicatechins and proanthocyanidins) may offer health benefits such as:

  • Protection against cancer
  • Improved blood flow and circulation
  • Anti-aging effects
  • Lower total and bad cholesterol (LDL-C) and higher good cholesterol (HDL-C)
  • Anti-inflammatory effects
  • Blood sugar regulation
  • Increased insulin sensitivity
  • Protection against cardiovascular disease

Red wine may confer these health benefits, but healthier red wine also begins with the ingredients used to make it. Grapes that are grown and farmed in a way that helps preserve the biodiversity and integrity of the soil, ensure high-quality grapes with better nutritional content. Mindfulness in farming and the production of wine translates into a healthier red wine for you to enjoy. 

Red wine also contains alcohol, which, when consumed in moderation, may reduce cardiovascular disease risk by 25-40%.

However, excessive drinking — of over four alcoholic drinks (of any kind, red wine included) per day — will commonly exacerbate existing health conditions or cause new ones. So drinkers should be fully aware that such alcohol abuse has killed more people and cost society and families more pain and dollars (from the diseases we mentioned previously, which is only a partial list) than the people that have benefited from moderate consumption of red wine. In 2010, excessive drinking cost the U.S. about $249 billion per year, which included the financial costs resulting from losses in workplace productivity ($179 billion), healthcare expenses to treat excessive drinking problems ($28 billion), motor vehicle crashes due to excessive drinking ($13 billion) and costs for law enforcement and criminal justice expenses ($25 billion). Between 2015-2019, more than 140,000 people died from alcohol-related causes, a total loss of about 3.6 million years of potential life. These hard numbers do not come close to measuring the impact that excessive alcohol consumption has on family, friends and loved ones who have lost someone to alcohol-related death. If you or a loved one is experiencing difficulties with misuse of alcohol, you can find more information on alcohol treatment here.   

Potential health benefits of red wine

Reduced risk of cancer

Free radicals in the body are normal and essential for certain cellular processes. However, an excessive amount of free radicals in the body can cause oxidative stress and damage to cells, protein and DNA, which may lead to cancer development. Antioxidants play a role in cancer prevention as they help to restore the balance of free radicals in the body by scavenging excessive free radicals and neutralizing them. Resveratrol and wine tannins are antioxidants found in red wine that may provide anti-cancer effects. 

Neuroprotective effects on the brain

Resveratrol may also improve and increase blood flow to the brain and provide some neuroprotective effects. An older study on the effects of resveratrol on cerebral blood flow (CBF) found that doses of orally administered resveratrol could improve blood flow to the brain in participants during task performance. CBF is crucial for cognitive performance and improved CBF indicates a sustained, protective effect on the brain and its functions. 

Improved diabetic management

A 2019 study on resveratrol and its effects on metabolic status in patients with type 2 diabetes (T2D) and coronary heart disease (CHD) found that resveratrol reduced fasting glucose, insulin resistance and the total cholesterol ratio (total cholesterol/good cholesterol). The study also found that resveratrol increased insulin sensitivity and the total antioxidant capacity (TAC) of diabetic patients. Resveratrol, which is plentiful in red wine, could be influential in helping individuals with or at risk of developing diabetes better manage their condition. 

Improved cholesterol and heart health

Consuming alcohol in moderation can reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Red wine, in particular, helps to improve overall cholesterol levels. The antioxidants best associated with this health benefit are the wine catechins and epicatechins, types of tannins found in grape skin and grape seeds that help give the wine its body of flavor. Catechins and epicatechins may lower bad cholesterol (LDL-C) and increase good cholesterol (HDL-C), improving overall heart health. If you’re looking for wines with higher catechin concentrations, go for the lighter-body wines because younger grapes have more catechins than mature grapes. 

Which is red or white wine healthier?

In most cases, red wine is healthier than white wine due to the total amount of antioxidants found in red wine. Red wine is made with red grapes and by steeping with the red grape skin, which contains all the antioxidants and flavonoids mentioned above. During the fermentation process, the red wine becomes enriched and saturated with beneficial flavonoids and tannins that add to the deep hues of red wine. 

White wine is typically made with white or green grapes (and occasionally, red) and without much contact with the grape skin or the grape seeds, which are removed early on in the winemaking process before fermentation. Thus, white wine contains fewer flavonoids than red wine. However, it is also worthy to note that white wine does have fewer calories than red wine.

Is organic wine healthier?

The term “organic” has been thrown around so often in recent years that it almost seems like a term that can be used to market anything. So, does an organic label actually make a difference with wine? Is organic wine healthier? Yes, organic wine is healthier than your traditional mass-produced wine because it uses higher-quality grapes free from pesticides and chemicals, and it contains fewer sulfites, which may cause adverse health effects when consumed in large quantities, regularly.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) established four different organic labels:

  • 100 percent organic
  • Organic
  • Made with organic …
  • Specific organic ingredient listings

Only “100 percent organic” and “organic” labels may receive a USDA organic seal on the product. The difference between the two labels is that the “organic” label refers to products that contain at least 95% organic ingredients. This label allows up to 5% of non-organic ingredients (either agricultural products or nonagricultural products permitted by the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances).

For organic wine, “both the growing of the grapes and their conversion to wine must be certified.” Organic grapes are grown without the use of pesticides and other chemicals, and are typically farmed in a way that preserves the biodiversity of the soil. Additional yeast to make the wine must also be organic. Sulfites, while naturally occurring in grapes and in the fermentation process, cannot be added to the wine if the product is to keep its organic label. Learn more about USDA’s regulations on organic wine here. Overall, organic wine is cleaner (free from pesticides and minimal additives) and therefore healthier. Plus, without the added sulfites, you can taste the true flavor of the wine more clearly. 

Consumption warning

Drinking red wine in moderation daily (one 5-oz glass of 12% ABV wine) can confer health benefits — including a certain degree of cardiovascular protection, cancer protection and diabetic management. However, health experts do not recommend that you start drinking alcohol (or wine) just to reap these health benefits. Adopting a new drinking habit can be dangerous, especially for those who have a family history of alcohol abuse or those who are more prone to developing addictions. Alcoholism is a disease of massive proportions, both in the U.S. and worldwide. And alcoholism is but one of dozens of diseases and disorders that excessive drinking (having over four drinks per day) can cause, as we discussed at the opening of this report. Here’s the complete list of Alcohol’s Effects On The Body (National Institute of Health) — spanning cardiac, neurological, liver, lung, gastrointestinal, pancreas, bone, muscle and oral cavity organ damage. 

Those who shouldn’t drink at all include people who are pregnant (or are possibly pregnant), are lactating or are taking certain medications that might interact negatively with alcohol. Consult with your primary care physician if you have questions or concerns about consuming alcohol. 

Key takeaways

Red wine appears to confer certain heart-health benefits when consumed in moderation. The grapes, grape skin and grape seeds used to make red wine provide antioxidants, especially resveratrol and condensed tannins, that have been widely studied for their anti-cancer effects, cholesterol-lowering effects, improved blood flow circulation and glucose management effects. 

Compared to white wine, red wine is healthier because it contains more antioxidants from the grape skin and grape seeds (which are removed early on in the process of making white wine). Organic wine tends to be healthier than traditional mass-produced wine because the former is made with higher-quality grapes and fewer sulfites, which help to preserve the wine, but which may also cause certain adverse health effects when consumed regularly. If you’re looking for a healthy red wine, try an organic and natural wine, which is cleaner (free from chemicals and additives), more sustainable (grapes are farmed in a way that preserves the health of the soil) and often more delectable due to fewer preservative sulfites. But remember: consuming more than a very modest amount of red wine per day (one glass for females, two for males) is risky, on so many medical and societal fronts; the price in loss of life and protracted disease and suffering from excessive alcohol consumption is enormous.

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