The term "white wine spritzer" may soon take on a whole new meaning -- that of an antibacterial spray for cleaning the house.
Wine, particularly white wine, was found to help kill E. coli and salmonella in recent experiments by food scientists at Oregon State University in Corvalis. The combination of alcohol and acidity prevented the bacteria from reproducing, prompting the researchers to work on developing a wine-based disinfectant.
The study, which was published in the American Society of Microbiology's journal and will appear in the Journal of Food Science, grew out of the conventional wisdom that drinking wine with a meal helps prevent food poisoning.
"You hear anecdotal stuff like the story about people on a cruise ship eating dinner, and those who didn't have wine with their meal get sick and those who did, don't," said lead researcher Mark Daeschel, a food science professor and a home winemaker. "So we said, 'Why don't we go out and test this stuff?'"
The human stomach already has an effective bacteria-killer in the form of gastric fluid, but if pathogens are ingested in sufficient quantities, they can cause illness. So Daeschel and two research assistants sought to discover whether drinking wine with a meal could help prevent E. coli or salmonella infections.
And if wine could inhibit the growth of bacteria without the aid of gastric fluid, the researchers hypothesized, then wine could be developed into a spray for sterilizing everything from countertops to cutting boards. Though they only tested two bacteria, they believe wine will kill other less resistant types, such as staphylococcus.
The team developed a system to simulate conditions inside the human stomach, setting up eight "model stomach" bags. Baby food was placed in the bags to simulate a freshly consumed meal "because the nutritional information is known, and the food is sterile and homogenous," according to the researchers.
Four bags contained synthetic gastric fluid and four did not. White and red wine, and white and red grape juice, were individually added to one bag in each group of four. (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes from the university's vineyards were used; the wine was produced in house.)
Strains of E. coli and salmonella were incubated at 93 degrees Fahrenheit for 24 hours before being added into the eight bags. Once all the ingredients were mixed together, the bags were heated to 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The researchers measured the levels of bacteria at intervals for up to three hours (the "transit time" of the contents of one's stomach), or until all the bacteria were dead.
The researchers found that both types of bacteria could survive in grape juice for up to two weeks if stomach acids weren't present.
But neither E. coli nor salmonella lasted more than an hour in wine by itself, without the aid of synthetic gastric fluid. Chardonnay proved to be a more potent potion, killing E. coli in 44 minutes and salmonella in 14. To kill off the same strains, it took Pinot Noir 60 minutes and 30 minutes, respectively.
The wine also prevented both strains from reproducing (which could prevent a bacteria colony from reaching sufficient levels to cause illness). "The bacteria must fight to survive," Daeschel explained. "The acid and alcohol are trying to weaken its cell wall and cause it to spill its guts out, so to speak. So it expends energy to stay alive, and doesn't have any left to reproduce."
The Chardonnay (which was 13.6 percent alcohol by volume) was better at stunting the growth of bacteria because of its higher acidity, noted Daeschel, even though the Pinot Noir was higher in alcohol, at 15.3 percent by volume.
When the experiment was repeated using nonalcoholic wines and wines with reduced acid levels, they found that the nonalcoholic wine killed the bacteria in less than half the time (up to one day) it took the wines with low levels of malic and tartaric acid (up to two days). The researchers believe that this shows that the "antibacterial activity of wine is primarily acid dependent." However, neither of the modified wines performed as quickly as the regular wines, which killed all bacteria in under one hour.
"The components of wine together exert this effect," Daeschel said. "We believe it's the low pH, high acidity and alcohol, the sulphur dioxide used in making the wine, and a lack of micronutrients for bacteria to feed on."
The next step, said Daeschel, is to develop a viable antibacterial spray, by manipulating levels of alcohol and acidity for the best results. White wine has numerous benefits as the base for such as product, claims Daeschel. It's nontoxic to humans and is an organic alternative to chemical products. It won't stain furniture. And many wineries have excess wine they are looking to get rid of (particularly now, in a weaker market).
There are still hurdles: The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms prohibits the sale of wine to anyone under the age of 21, even if it comes in a plastic spray bottle.
"For ATF approval, we will have to denature the wine with one-and-a-half percent salt," said Daeschel, adding that such a measure would not only contribute to the spray's antibacterial properties, but would also make anyone who drinks it throw up.
For a comprehensive look at the potential health benefits of drinking wine, check out senior editor Per-Henrik Mansson's feature Eat Well, Drink Wisely, Live Longer: The Science Behind a Healthy Life With Wine
Read more about the potential health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption:
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Here's to Your Health: Is it now "medically correct" for a physician to prescribe a little wine to lower the risk of heart disease?