Wine and health

Wine and health

Paul Scholten

Wine and Health


I have been prescribing and recommending wine to my patients as a healthful food, appetite stimulant, and mild natural tranquilizer, for almost 30 years. These values are soundly documented and have been known to physicians for centuries.

My reason for discussing them is the current flooding of physicians’ mail and the public press with direful data about all alcoholic beverages and about government proposals to require labels to appear on bottles warning of fearful consequences if the contents are consumed. I am often asked to comment professionally on these proposals. They originate from the proliferation of new government agencies and increasing numbers of research laboratories concerned with alcoholism as a grave medical problem, which it is.

My daily mealtime beverage, table wine, is involved because there is a longstanding government policy to treat all alcoholic beverages as one big, bad entity, the drug “alcohol,” which all of these beverages contain in varying amounts. As part of this policy, light natural wine is lumped together with beer, dessert and aperitif wines, whiskey, gin, brandy and rum, as though there were no difference in their physiologic effects and in their purposes, times, and manners of use. There are important differences, which this policy obscures.

This policy of treating all alcoholic beverages as one is also evident in the government-financed alcoholism research projects which in recent years have multiplied nationwide. The studies have concentrated on alcoholic abuse and its contribution to accidents, aggression, family disruption, crime and disease. The subjects studied are drunks, addicts, their families, and animals fed massive doses of ethanol – never any of the conceivable values of any kind of alcoholic drink. The one government-supported study of current American drinking practices measured only frequencies of use. It found that wine-drinkers tended to be moderate, but it ignored the reasons why.

The policy of treating all alcoholic beverages alike may perhaps be explained by what it deliberately conceals: the evidence that identifies light mealtime wine as the least intoxicating and therefore the most temperate of all alcoholic drinks.

This key evidence is disclosed in a simple graph published 14 years ago in a little book entitled Alcoholic Beverages in Clinical Medicine. The book was written by Drs. Chauncey D. Leake and Milton Silverman. The graph was brought to my attention when Dr. Cortez Enloe published it in Nutrition Today last February with a report of Dr. Jeanette McDonald’s research-finding that wine taken with food contributes significantly to the absorption of nutrients.

Few physicians of my acquaintance are aware of what the graph shows. It depicts the marked differences in the alcoholic effects of various beverages, which it is government policy and the policy of the alcohol-research laboratories to ignore.

One of the chief characteristics of wine is its content of grape substances. These substances have a buffering effect that slows the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream.

When the blood contains 0.10 gm per cc of ethanol, the subject by legal definition is drunk. Note on the graph that the fasting subject who consumes 0.6 gm of alcohol per kg of body weight in the form of gin or vodka becomes legally drunk with 0.10 blood-alcohol level in a matter of minutes. This is the effect of 4 oz. of 80-proof gin or vodka on a 165-pound man. A slightly lower peak effect is produced by the equivalent in whiskey, according to the graph. Much slower, and with a much lower peak, is the effect produced by 8 oz. of dessert or aperitif wines containing the same total dose of absolute alcohol.

But note the fourth line on the graph. The fasting subject ingesting the same total amount of alcohol in 13.5 oz. of 12% table wine is about half as drunk as the subject who drank it as distilled spirits. The effect is markedly slower and the peak effect is much lower when the beverage is wine.

Then note the sixth line, dotted, which is of particular interest because table wine is principally consumed with food, which in this case is a standard 1,500-calorie meal.

The drinker of table wine with his meal raises his blood-alcohol level less than a third as much as if he drank the same dose of alcohol in whiskey, vodka, or gin in the manner in which those beverages are principally consumed, on an empty stomach during the cocktail hour. The alcohol is also metabolized or excreted sooner when ingested in table wine with food than without. The same is true of beer taken with food. Thus our average man would have to drink well over a bottle of table wine with his meal to reach the effect of four fairly weak martinis before the meal.

I doubt whether any of the federal, state, or local legislators who vote in issues restricting the sale of alcoholic beverages are aware of the significant differences portrayed in this simple graph. But it seems strange that the differences are ignored by those in the scientific community who produce the deluge of research findings that portray all alcoholic beverages, regardless of type, as equally injurious to health.

There are signs that the American public is already discovering the differences shown in this graph and is thereby several steps ahead of the government, the alcohol researchers, and the scientific press. One sign is that consumers have quadrupled the national consumption of table wine during the past 14 years. Another, although it may be mere coincidence, is the evidence that drunkenness in this country is going out of style.

The government policy of lumping all alcoholic beverages together as simply “alcohol” is strongly supported by the distilled spirits industry. The chief organization of that industry is conducting a campaign to persuade all liquor trade publications and also all state and national legislatures to refer to all types of drinks as “alcohol beverages” or “beverage alcohol.” This is a subtle but effective way of diverting attention away from the health and temperate values of wine and beer. The purpose apparently is to divert political attacks away from hard liquor by sharing their force with the respected, admired, civilizing beverage, table wine.

Differences in the effects of various alcoholic beverages, which the government and alcohol researchers deliberately ignore, have long been known to the medical profession. Dr. Benjamin Rush, the professor of medicine in the University of Pennsylvania and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, published a book in 1812 condemning distilled spirits and advocating the use of wine with meals to combat intemperance. The early advocates of prohibition aimed only at spirits; they would have exempted wine. This was also the policy of President Thomas Jefferson, who wrote that “no nation is drunken where wine is cheap, and none sober where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage.” Modern statistical evidence bears this out.

In Italy, which has the second highest reported rate of total alcohol consumption in the world and where wine as food is introduced early in life in the home, the rate of alcoholism has been reported by the World Health Organization to be less than a seventh of the rate in the United States (500 per 100,000 compared to 3,950 in the USA). The government of the Soviet Union, faced with the ravages of vodka misuse, has sponsored a vast expansion of its vineyards to encourage the consumption of table wine instead.

Addiction to alcohol is rare among the Italians, the Jews, and the Greeks, who are socially intolerant of drunken behavior and who are regular consumers of table wine. Alcoholism is likewise rare in all similar cultures where drinking is not viewed as a proof of adulthood or virility, but where children are exposed early to wine as food in a family or religious setting and where parents present an example of moderation.

Our federal and state governments have spent hundreds of millions to combat alcoholic abuse and to finance research into methods of treating alcohol addicts: and nothing has been effective. It is time for a change in the government policy of ignoring the differences among alcoholic beverages, and for a program of research into the temperate values of table wine.

If table wine can be made the favored American drink, there will be far fewer problems with alcohol and alcoholism. This is a special value of the naturally fermented juice of grapes – as a natural preventive of alcoholism – and is one more of the many reasons why I prescribe and recommend the use of wine.

PHOTO : Typical blood-alcohol curves resulting from ingestion of various spirits, wines and beer, each at amounts equivalent to 0.6 gm of alcohol per kilogram of body weight. (From Alcohol Beverages in Clinical Medicine, by Chauncey D. Leake and Milton Silverman. Year Book Medical Publ., Inc., Chicago, 1966).

(Dr. Scholten’s article is based on an address before the Medical Friends of Wine in Summer, 1980. The article appeared in Wines & Vines in September, 1980.)

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