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Study Finds Carcinogens in Alcoholic Beverages

Substances in wine can cause cancer, but levels are low for moderate drinkers

Jacob Gaffney
Posted: April 9, 2012

The heart-healthy benefits of one or two glasses of wine per day are well-established, but a new study finds that alcoholic beverages also contain several different known carcinogens. However, the study isn't all doom and gloom for wine drinkers. In fact, for those who drink less than four servings per day, the risk of heavy exposure to carcinogens is slim. Is the report alarmist? The study's lead author argues that people who decide to drink alcohol should be educated to all potential risks, as well as benefits.

"The protective effect of moderate alcohol consumption proven in epidemiology is on cardiovascular disease, and not on cancer," said lead author Dirk Lachenmeier, an epidemiologist at the Dresden University of Technology. The study is slated for publication in the International Journal of Cancer.

"Our intention was to compare the different carcinogenic substances," he told Wine Spectator. And there are many in alcoholic beverages, his team found, as the commercial samples of alcoholic beverages contained above-trace levels of arsenic, benzene, formaldehyde and lead, among others. As expected, the carcinogen with the highest concentration in all alcoholic drinks is ethanol. In corresponding animal research, these compounds have been linked to cancer, especially in the mouth and throat.

Lachenmeier and his team also used the data to measure cancer risk according to the levels of exposure in humans. Light to moderate drinkers should be at little risk, they found, but four or more drinks a day is considerably riskier. The carcinogenity, or the ability to produce cancer, of ethanol in humans is three and a half times greater in those who drink four or more drinks per day, the study found.

The research does not speculate on varying production methods in alcoholic beverages that may contribute to the levels of carcinogens found in the drinks. It does argue that producers should let consumers know what they are drinking, as people would be more likely to buy a beverage with lower levels of such substances.

The study also argues that regulatory policy concerning alcohol should focus on reducing consumption, not trying to direct consumers to one type of drink over another. Additionally, in a letter to the editor of the Journal of Women's Health, Lachenmeier wrote his message in stronger language. Lachenmeier and co-author Jürgen Rehm wrote that red wine can be cancerous even at lower levels. The risk may be low, they say, but there is still risk. "We think that the current state of research does not allow concluding that red wine is less carcinogenic than white wine, or any other alcoholic beverage," they wrote.

One argument against the scientists' point is that some studies have found evidence that compounds in red wine may lower breast cancer risk. Lachenmeier conceded that red wine may contain cancer-preventing substances, but this is not measured in the current study. He counters that these conclusions remain conjecture for the time being. "Most studies on such compounds, like resveratrol, are based on in-vitro results, which are not usable for quantitative dose-response analyses as conducted in our study," he said.

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