Is wine healthy or harmful? Depends on the color

By Alistair Gardiner
Published October 15, 2020

Key Takeaways

For those who are keeping the lockdown blues at bay with a couple more bevvies at the end of the day, here’s some bad news: The Department of Health and Human Services 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) suggests that you should be drinking less.

Earlier this year, the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee—an independent advisory board appointed by the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services—issued its recommendations in the new DGA, which is updated once every 5 years. Among the recommendations is a proposal to limit daily alcoholic beverage consumption to one drink a day for both men and women. The previous guidance was a one-drink limit for women and two drinks for men.

The committee cited evidence that Americans are boozing far more now than 20 years ago, as well as a study that found that mortality from alcohol-attributable causes of death has increased. Ultimately the committee concluded that alcohol is, overall, “an unhealthy substance,” which increases the risk of all-cause mortality when consumed excessively. In short: Nobody should be drinking under the impression that it will improve their health.

However, studies have indicated that drinking wine, in moderation, may provide certain health benefits. This raises a question for wine-lovers: If you enjoy winding down with a glass of wine, which is better for you, red or white?

The case for red

The idea that red wine is good for you originated millennia ago. The ancient Egyptians and Greeks reportedly lauded the health benefits of wine. But the idea didn’t permeate mainstream medicine until the 1970s, when a phenomenon that became known as the French Paradox prompted researchers to begin conducting studies to test the ancient hypothesis. Researchers observed that French people were less likely to develop heart disease than other populations, despite the fact they tend to eat more saturated fat. A 1979 study published in The Lancet suggested that this was directly attributable to the amount of wine the French consume.

In their attempts to understand the French Paradox, researchers have pinpointed compounds in red wine that are associated with health benefits. First, red wine is packed with antioxidants called polyphenols, which are found in fruits and vegetables. Some studies have indicated that consuming more of these may lead to a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. Other researchers compared wine drinkers to those who drink beer or liquor and found that people drinking red wine every day had the lowest risk of cardiac diseases and mortality, as well as decreased hypertension. Some studies suggested that even individuals with established heart disease may be able to lower their risk of cardiovascular events and lengthen their lives with moderate wine consumption.

Among the polyphenols is resveratrol, the compound that some studies point to as a big part of what makes red wine such a health boon. Found in peanuts, soy, berries, grapes, and wine, resveratrol has been shown to alleviate oxidative stress and inflammation, promote autophagy (the destruction of damaged or redundant cellular components within cells), and suppress vascular smooth muscle cell proliferation.

However, other studies question whether drinking wine actually provides these benefits. Some research suggests that the positive effects of resveratrol are overestimated because of the compound’s relatively low concentration in foods and low bioavailability in humans. The jury may be out on resveratrol, with some studies linking it to lower risks of inflammation and blood clotting, but others positing it provides no benefits for preventing heart disease.

That said, red wine contains other elements that may be beneficial for your health. It also contains rhamnetin, another antioxidant, which some studies show may be protective against apoptosis in cardiomyoblasts by inhibiting free oxygen radicals.

Other studies draw a link between red wine consumption and good gut health, as well as lower cholesterol. A study conducted at King’s College London last year found that people who drink red wine have better gut microbiota diversity, as well as lower levels of obesity. One study even found an association with moderate consumption of wine, as part of a Mediterranean-style diet, and decreased risks of cancer.

What if white is right?

For years, many have assumed that white wine doesn’t provide as many of these health benefits. Some studies have illustrated that red wine contains 10 times as many polyphenols, due to its fermentation process.

Other studies indicate that white wine can’t be broadly labeled as worse for you—it may simply be a case of choosing the right type of white. Indeed, some recent studies have indicated that white wine brings its own set of advantages, including cardiovascular protection. In one study, researchers reported on aged white wine’s ability to repair and maintain endothelial integrity related to atherosclerosis in high cardiovascular risk subjects.

Another study found that Andalusian aged white wine can be helpful in reducing hypertension. Other research suggests that white wine phenols have a comparable or higher antioxidant capacity than red wine phenols and concluded that, by changing their techniques, winemakers could actually take actions to increase the health benefits of their white wine.

While more research is required to determine the relative benefits of antioxidants found in red and white wine, white wine certainly appears to have the edge in one respect: White wines tend to have fewer calories than red wine. Light white wines have around 140 calories or fewer per 6-oz pour, while light reds average 135-165 calories, and even up to 200 calories in higher alcohol reds like pinot noirs and syrahs. One study on overweight and obese patients undergoing weight-loss treatment found that adding moderate amounts of white wine to their diet, compared with adding grape juice, had no effect on the treatment and allowed participants to continue losing body weight.

The jury is out (or maybe just inebriated)

While decades of studies have suggested that the antioxidants found in wines may be associated with all the aforementioned health benefits, doubt remains among the scientific community that wine’s benefits outweigh its risks. One study pointed out that people often begin to drink less alcohol as they age, become ill, or begin to use medications, which may skew many of the studies conducted in this area. As other studies have found, it may simply be that those who develop heart problems tend to decrease or stop drinking entirely, throwing into question wine’s benefits for people with cardiovascular problems.

While studies appear to suggest that red wine may be better than white for certain aspects of our health—including reducing hypertension, decreasing risks of cardiovascular disease, and improving cholesterol—the American Heart Association rightly points out that “no research has proved a cause-and-effect link between drinking alcohol and better heart health.” 

Furthermore, drinking too much alcohol is known to increase your risks of liver and pancreatic diseases, certain types of cancer, strokes, weight gain, general accidents, and various other ailments. And it’s best to remember, the compounds in wine that are alleged to be life-lengthening can also be found in berries, fruits, nuts, and, yes, grapes and grape juice.

In the absence of conclusive evidence, the best we can do is make an educated guess based on the evidence we do have. So far, that evidence seems to favor red wine over white for those looking to reduce the health risks of their alcoholic beverages.

So, if you’re going to indulge in a glass of wine, it’s likely best to follow the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s advice and stick to no more than one glass a day—and make it a red.

Share with emailShare to FacebookShare to LinkedInShare to Twitter