Finally, a promising innovation for those who don't drink red wine. A team of French scientists has developed a Chardonnay that, at least as indicated in tests on diabetic rats, could have the same health benefits associated with red wine.
Numerous studies have found that red wine may be more protective against certain health problems, such as cardiovascular disease and some cancers, than white wine. Red wines have higher levels of polyphenols -- which include tannins and anthocynanin pigments -- than whites do. While the alcohol in wine may be responsible for some health benefits, many medical researchers believe that the polyphenols in red wine provide additional benefits, because they act as antioxidants, preventing free radicals (rogue oxygen molecules) from causing oxidative damage to the body.
To test that theory, researchers at Montpellier University in southern France produced a white wine with polyphenol levels comparable to those found in reds. Simply put, the team used techniques for making red wine to create the Chardonnay. That included six days of maceration -- fermenting the wine in contact with the grape skins and other solids to extract the color, tannins and aromas -- at a temperature of 82.4 degrees F. (White wines are typically fermented without the skins and at cooler temperatures.)
Testing showed that the wine had antioxidant levels nearly 3.5 times greater than a typical Chardonnay, but within the normal range of most red wines. Levels of some tannins, such as gallic acid, were comparable to those found in reds, while levels of others, such as catechin, were more than double the typical red-wine amounts.
The researchers then divided 32 healthy lab rats into four equal groups. One group served as the control; the other three were injected with a solution that destroyed 90 percent of their insulin-secreting cells, causing the development of type 1 diabetes.
With type 1 diabetes, which typically develops early in life, the body stops producing insulin. Blood-sugar levels rise, causing cardiovascular problems, which may lead in the long term to retinal, kidney or nerve damage. Diabetics are likely to suffer accelerated deterioration of their vascular tissue because they have lower-than-normal levels of antioxidants in their systems.
Of the three groups of diabetic rats, one group was left untreated. Another group received two daily injections of the polyphenol-enriched Chardonnay, in an amount that the scientists felt was equivalent to moderate consumption for humans. The third group was injected with two daily doses of the same wine with the alcohol removed. The Chardonnay was not tested against a red wine.
After six weeks, the researchers performed autopsies on the rats. The results were published in the Dec. 27 issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. Both groups of rats that received the wine injections had antioxidant levels similar to the rats without diabetes. The wine-treated rats had healthier arteries and better circulation than the untreated, diabetic rats, which showed marked deterioration of vascular tissue.
"Because the effects of wine were observed with both white wine and its ethanol-free counterpart," the authors wrote," they can be attributed to the presence of phenolic compounds."
The wine did not "cure" the rats of diabetes, and the scientists cautioned that more research is needed to understand how polyphenols work inside the human body and what role they play in providing in possible health benefits.
"Possibly diabetics can prevent deterioration of vascular tissue by drinking polyphenol-rich white wine only with moderate [1 to 2 glasses a day] and regular consumption [daily]," said researcher Pierre-Louis Teissedre. "Our work indicates that a polyphenol-enriched white wine, containing high tannin content, can be effective, and it's possible that red wines containing tannins and anthocyanins can be also effective."
As the effects of moderate wine consumption vary by individual, people should not change their drinking habits without consulting their physician.
The scientists produced the polyphenol-enriched Chardonnay in 2000 at Virginie-Castel winery in Beziers, France, which provided some funding for the project. The winery is now selling the wine under the name "Paradoxe Blanc."
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 and The Case for Red Wine
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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?