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Drinking Wine Linked to Better Levels of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Novel mechanism triggered by wine consumption creates healthy fats

Jacob Gaffney
Posted: December 30, 2008

The latest research on wine and health may seem a little fishy. Scientists working in collaboration across three separate parts of Europe found that responsible alcohol consumption, especially wine drinking, is linked to higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the blood.

Previous studies have found that both high levels of omega-3, found abundantly in oily fish, and moderate alcohol consumption, especially wine, are linked to healthier hearts. Omega-3 began to get serious attention in the scientific community after the United States Food and Drug Administration declared in 2004 that the fatty acids help lower the risk of heart disease. The agency cites oily fish, such as salmon, lake trout, tuna and herring as being high in the substances.

According to a study lead by Romina di Giuseppe, a biomedical epidemiologist at Catholic University in Campobasso, Italy, scheduled to be published in the January issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, while the body cannot manufacture these fatty acids alone, research found that it can synthesize omega-3 from everyday vegetable oils, with the help of alcohol.

The researchers examined 1,604 European citizens from the southwest region of London, Limburg in Belgium and Abruzzo in Italy, with the help of their physicians. All participants underwent a comprehensive medical examination and filled out a questionnaire, which included questions on dietary habits and alcohol consumption. The process was repeated a year later. Blood samples were also taken to measure the levels of omega-3 in blood plasma and red blood cells.

One serving of alcohol was defined as one 4-ounce glass of wine at 12 percent alcohol by volume. One shot of spirits was equal to 1.35 ounces. The definition of beer varied according to local custom: a 200 milliliter (6.7 ounces) can or bottle of beer is common in Italy, compared to 250 milliliters in Belgium and 284 milliliters (one half-pint) in England. The amount of "marine food intake," defined as the total intake of fish, shellfish cuttlefish, squid, octopus, shrimp and crab, was also measured and taken into account.

The scientists found that moderate consumers of alcohol had higher levels of omega-3 in their bodies, when compared to nondrinkers, despite consuming similar amounts of marine food. Heavy drinkers, on the other hand, had lower amounts. When they separated the findings according to type of beverage, wine drinkers stood out as having the healthiest levels of omega-3. Healthiest levels were found in women who consumed up to one glass of wine per day and men who consumed two or maybe three glasses, Giuseppe said of the results.

After several more tests the researchers found that, "the metabolism of alcohol induces production of reactive oxygen species [free radicals] after moderate drinking, which may increase polyunsaturated fatty acid breakdown and utilization," Giuseppe said in the study text. By producing potentially damaging free radicals, the alcohol pushes the body into action, she added, and starts to convert more commonly-found alpha-linolenic fatty acids into the healthier omega-3 acids that can destroy free radicals. Alpha-linolenic acids abound in seed- and nut-based oils, such as canola and rapeseed, and are also found in green vegetables and the animals that eat them. The milk of grass-fed cows, for example, contains alpha-linolenic acid.

The study, which was overseen by noted French cardiovascular researcher Dr. Michel de Lorgeril of Grenoble University in Lyon, states that, "if confirmed, this effect of alcohol drinking might have major implication in the prevention of coronary heart disease." But the study also warns that a long-term trial is necessary in order to outline what form any therapy might take.

In the meantime, the scientists say they do not want to force a change in dietary habits of people who prefer beer or spirits. "With our research we simply suggest that components of wine other than alcohol might be [better] associated with marine omega-3 fatty acid concentrations," said Giuseppe.

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