Gallic hearts

Gallic hearts – correlation between high-fat French diet and low rates of heart disease may be linked to presence of salicylic acid in wine

ANY SELF-RESPECTING GOURMET worth his sun-dried sea salt has heard of le paradoxe francais: even though French people consume fatty foods at a pace comparable to Americans’, death rates from heart disease are far lower in France. Some studies have suggested that the streams of wine the French soak up protect their hearts. Various chemicals in wine–quercetin, epicatechin, and resveratrol–appear to lower levels of harmful cholesterol and may dilate blood vessels. Then, of course, there’s the alcohol itself, which, if imbibed in moderate amounts, has been shown to have similar effects.

But there’s one constituent of wine, says biochemist and enologist Carlos Muller of California State University at Fresno, that has been ignored: salicylic acid, which is also the active ingredient of common aspirin. Not only is salicylic acid a powerful antioxidant (a substance that neutralizes highly reactive and celldamaging molecules called free radicals), but it is also known to lower cholesterol levels and help prevent blood from clotting in clogged arteries. That is why some studies have suggested that a daily dose of 30 milligrams of aspirin may be a good preventive measure in maintaining a healthy heart. (Commercial tablets typically contain 325 milligrams of aspirin.)

Muller and his colleague Kenneth Fugelsang measured levels of salicylic acid in a range of California wines. One liter of red or white wine, they found, contained almost twice as much salicylic acid–and the compounds it breaks down into in the body–as the daily recommended dose of aspirin. Red wines contained somewhat more salicylic acid–not surprisingly, since the red grapes from which the wine is made are fermented with their skin, where salicylic acid is highly concentrated. In white wines the grape skins are sometimes filtered out before fermentation.

Although Muller is not the first to detect salicylic acid in wine, he claims to be the first to make the connection between its presence in wine and lower rates of heart disease. Even more crucial, he says, is the fact that the antioxidants and the alcohol in wine are taken in combination. As the liver detoxifies alcohol, it produces a molecule called NADH. Through a complex biochemical cycle, NADH restores the antioxidant power of salicylic acid that has been used up in fighting free radicals. “In wine we have a unique combination that has not only salicylic acid and other antioxidants but in addition a mechanism to recycle them,” says Muller.

Muller, who turned 62 last May, believes in the protective value of two glasses of wine a day. “This is what I’ve been doing since–gosh–since I can remember, and I am crowding quite a few years.”

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