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Wine's Health Benefits Disputed

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I recently attended a program on cancer prevention sponsored by the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. A woman in the audience asked whether red wine increases risks.

The reply from one of the clinic's experts: Alcohol may increase the risk of breast and colon cancer, and you should not start drinking to prevent cancer.

Whether to drink red wine or not as a matter of good health is another one of those confusing medical subjects. Drink to benefit your heart - perhaps. But if you're trying to prevent cancer, maybe moderate intake is fine, or maybe it's not.

According to the American Cancer Society, alcohol is an established cause of cancers of the mouth, throat, voice box, esophagus, liver and breast, and it may also increase the risk of colon cancer.

However, some research indicates there are positive effects of red wine on preventing certain other kinds of cancer, such as in the lung and upper digestive tract. There are findings, for example, that resveratrol, a chemical compound found in grapes and in some red wine, may confer benefits through its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

A summary of research to date can be found in this month's issue of the European Journal of Cancer Prevention. The article states that "low alcohol consumption seems to decrease total mortality and to have beneficial properties on cardiovascular disease; data for cancer are still inconclusive."

The authors conclude that while regular consumption of one or two glasses of wine seems reasonably safe, there's no justification for a recommendation to the general population for low wine consumption.

Despite some cardiologists' recommendations to patients to drink a little red wine each day, the American Heart Association also cautions against the idea of red wine as an elixir to heart disease - especially because too much alcohol can lead to high blood pressure, heart failure, obesity or even alcoholism.

Of course, dietary supplement makers are in on the act - selling pills made of extracts from grapes amid claims to prevent cancer and heart disease.

Much of the research focuses on compounds that come from the skin of grapes and, in the case of heart disease, appear to prevent the formation of artery-blocking plaque. However, in June, the Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter reported it is not so much these compounds in red wine but the alcohol itself that seems protective.

"Studies have consistently linked moderate consumption of all kinds of alcohol to a reduced risk of heart disease," the letter said. "But nondrinkers should not take up drinking for health reasons." Experts define "moderate" as no more than two drinks a day for men and one for women.

There you have it. Or sort of. Try to explain all this, and indeed someone may think you've had too much red wine.


(Diane Evans is a staff writer at the Akron Beacon Journal. Though she has researched the information in this column, she has no training in medicine or science. Readers should consult carefully with their physicians before relying on anything in the column. If you have questions or suggestions for Evans, contact her at the Akron Beacon Journal, P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309-0640, or by e-mail at


(c) 2003, Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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