Eleventy billion questions answered. Three goodnight kisses given as I tuck my littles into bed. Two generously poured glasses of wine . . . one for me, and one for my husband. <<–That’s more or less how the numbers look for me on a typical Friday night.
Not on that list? Mega Purple food coloring and sawdust, which are just some of the 70+ approved additives used in conventional wine. I used to think that I couldn’t drink wine because I always felt terrible the next day, but when I switched to natural wine that all changed. Turns out, I was just sensitive to the additives.
Wine is consumed in moderation in Blue Zones around the world, which are regions that have the highest number of centenarians (people that live to 100). As we’ll discuss below, that’s likely in part due to the rich polyphenol content of wine. However, wine is not necessary for a healthy lifestyle.
However, if you’re a wine lover like me and already do, here’s what to look for and what to avoid.
Is wine really healthy?
Like many traditional foods and drinks – eggs, butter, coconut oil, and salt for example – wine has been declared good for us, then bad, and now good again by many experts. As I wrote about in this post on eating healthy during pregnancy, our genetic makeup probably plays a role in which foods/drinks are optimal for us, and there isn’t a likely a one-size-fits all approach that fits everyone.
That said, there are some well-documented health benefits and potential downsides. We’ll discuss them below, along with what to look for when purchasing wine.
5 Health Benefits of Wine
Red wine is typically considered healthier than white wine due to its high anthocyanin content – a color-rich polyphenol found in grape skins. However, newer research suggests that in some cases white wine may be equally beneficial – more on that below. (WebMD)
Here are some of the research-backed benefits of wine:
In this study, both red and white wine decreased the levels of several inflammatory markers in healthy women, but the red wine had a more significant beneficial effect.
Likewise, when Sicilian red wine was given to healthy adults who didn’t (or very rarely) consumed red wine, researchers saw a reduction in inflammatory markers and oxidized “bad” LDL cholesterol. (Avellone et. al.)
2. Heart Health
We’ve all heard that a traditional Mediterranean Diet – which often includes red wine – is associated with health and longevity, but can red wine improve markers when the diet is far less than ideal?
In this small study, researchers measured the effect of consuming a Mediterranean-style meal and a McDonald’s meal both with and without red wine. They found that, when compared with the non-drinking group, those who consumed red wine had lower amounts of oxidized “bad” LDL and increased expression of antioxidant genes for both the Mediterranean meal and the McDonald’s meals. I am definitely not recommending that you try this experiment at home, but it is interesting. (Renzo et. al. )
Many studies have found that red wine raises HDL “good” cholesterol and lowers oxidized LDL “bad” cholesterol, but a recent study concluded that white wines may be beneficial as well According to the study, those rich in the antioxidants tyrosol and hydroxytyrosol “can provide cardioprotection similar to red wine.” (Dudley et. al.)
However, it’s important to note that “Wine consumption has a J-curve relationship to cardiovascular disease. One study found that 150 mL (5 ounces) of wine per day is better than none, while high intakes are worse for mortality. 1-2 glasses per day for men and 1 per day for women as optimal.” (Mark Sisson)
4. Gut Health
According to this study, consuming red wine over four weeks “significantly increased” the presence of beneficial bacteria such as Bifidobacterium. Researchers believe the polyphenols serve as a prebiotic (food for probiotic bacteria).
Another study done in the Netherlands found that wine, coffee and tea all have prebiotic effects which increase gut diversity – yay! (Bushak)
5. Brain Health
In this 7-year study which included over 5,000 people, researchers concluded that light to moderate wine consumption improved cognitive performance. A large longitudinal study called the Northern Manhattan Study also found that “Moderate alcohol intake may slow cognitive decline and both vascular and neurodegenerative mechanisms have been implicated.”
What about red grape extract?
One interesting study worth noting compared the benefits of red wine and grape extract, which contained a wine-equivalent dose of polyphenols. The study found that the wine was more beneficial than the extract, suggesting that the benefits of wine can’t be reduced to just one factor (the polyphenols).
Downsides of Wine
As mentioned above, wine is only considered beneficial in moderate amounts – more is not better, and can in fact negatively impact health. In addition to that, over 150 additives are approved for use in conventional wine.
Additives And Contaminants To Avoid
Unfortunately, winemakers are not required to disclose any additives except one – added sulfites – and there are also issues with contaminants due to industrial farming practices. Here are some common ones:
Pesticide & Fungicides
To maximize profits, many producers irrigate their vineyards so that they can grow more grapes in closer quarters. The problem with this approach is that with more water comes more risk of mold/mildew and pest issues. For this reason, irrigated vineyards are often sprayed with a lot of pesticides and fungicides.
For example, in 2010 about 25 million pounds of pesticides were applied to conventionally-grown wine grapes in California. (California Department of Pesticides Regulation) Another small study found glyphosate (Roundup) in 10 out of 10 conventionally grown California wines that were tested. (ABC News)
Internationally produced conventional wines often have the same issue. In France, vineyards represent just 3% of agricultural land, but use 80% of the fungicides applied. (Anson)
So what’s the alternative? Many producers use dry farming instead, which is a method that relies solely on rainfall rather than irrigation. With this approach grapes are less less vulnerable to mold/mildew and pests. As a bonus, vines that are dry farmed develop much deeper root systems in order to tap into water, thus drawing up more flavor components from the soil. (Forbes)
Mega Purple and Ultra Red
If you’ve ever sipped on a red wine and ended up with a very purple smile, you’ve probably been Mega-Purpled. Natural red wine doesn’t do that.
Wine makers know that we naturally seek out vibrantly-colored foods because rich colors indicate a high level of antioxidants, which is why they add super concentrated grape juice syrup to intensify the color of red wine and make it sweeter. They say that it’s okay since it’s made from grapes, but I’m not convinced. High fructose corn syrup is also naturally derived, but the way in which it’s processed makes it terrible for us. I haven’t been able to find enough information about how these dyes are made to feel comfortable with them.
Fining and Defoaming Agents
Fining agents are used to remove proteins from wine. Fining agents can include egg white, milk products including casein, fish bladders, and gelatin. (Puckette) This can be problematic for some people who need to avoid certain foods due to sensitivities.
Defoaming agents such as polyoxyethylene 40 monostearate, silicon dioxide, dimethylpoly-siloxane, sorbitan monostearate, glyceryl mono-oleate and glyceryl dioleate are also often used in conventional wine production.
Although wine contains a small amount of naturally occurring sulfites, additional sulfites (in the form of sulfur dioxide) are sometimes added as a preservative in significant amounts. Although actual allergies to sulfites are rare, some people have a genetic mutation that alters how their body processes sulfur. For those people, it’s usually wise to avoid excess intake of sulfur – for example, using magnesium chloride in homemade bath salts instead of magnesium sulfate (which is magnesium bonded with sulfur) and opting for low-sulfate wine.
The current maximum of sulfites allowed for conventional wines is 350 ppm, which is often enough to be problematic for people who are sensitive.
Oak chips and sawdust are sometimes added to wine in order to impart the flavor associated with oak barrel aging.
Twenty-three percent of wines tested from 13 different countries contained fumonisin b(2), which is a type of mycotoxin. (Mogensen et. al.) If you’ve never heard of them before, mycotoxins are “secondary metabolites of molds that have adverse effects on humans, animals, and crops that result in illnesses and economic losses.” (Zain)
They’re never added intentionally as an ingredient, but as mentioned earlier mold and mildew is often a problem for wine producers that use irrigation instead of dry farming techniques.
What To Look For In Wine
Look for wines that are organic, biodynamic and/or dry-farmed, then ask the producer about their production practices, such as whether or not they:
- Test for mycotoxins and pesticide/fungicide residue
- Add sugar, coloring, fining agents, defoaming agents, sawdust, etc.
The label will say whether or not they add sulfites, but it can also be helpful to ask for more specific info on that as well – ideally, the sulfites would be below 75ppm.
If you’re thinking that sounds like a lot of work, you can take the shortcut I do and buy Dry Farm Wines, which only sells wines that meet my standards.
Why I Love Dry Farms Wine
If you’ve ever listened to this Wellness Mama podcast, you know I sometimes joke about starting a second blog called “Things Katie Talked Me Into.” But when she told me about a wine that’s tested for purity, low in sugar and contained no additives, she didn’t have to talk me into anything!
Dry Farms Wine is hands down the healthiest and best collection of wines I know of. Here’s what makes them exceptional:
- Their wines all use natural farming and traditional winemaking practices, including organic or bio-dynamic farming and dry farming. Click here to read more about their old growth vines (generally 35-100 years old) and production standards.
- Each batch is virtually sugar-free, containing less than 1g/L of total sugars (including fructose and glucose). That means it’s keto friendly for those who are on a keto diet. (If you’re wondering how wine can be sugar-free, it’s because they allow it to ferment until most of the sugar has been converted, and they don’t add in additional sugar like some producers.)
- They lab test their wines for mycotoxins, sulfite content, sugar content, and alcohol content (traditionally made wines are lower in alcohol than many modern conventional wines)
- They use wild native yeast and no additives for aroma, color, flavor or texture enhancement.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Scott Soerries, MD, Family Physician and Medical Director of SteadyMD. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
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