If you're a wine drinker, here's another reason to raise your glass: Red wine is a significant dietary source of saponins, plant compounds known to help lower cholesterol. Researchers at the University of California, Davis, recently announced the news at the 226th national meeting of the American Chemical Society.
For years, drinking red wine in moderation has been credited with improving heart health. Until recently, however, scientists attributed the reduction in cardiovascular disease risk to a potent antioxidant known as resveratrol.
Both resveratrol and saponins belong to a class of compounds manufactured by plants as a natural defense against injury and disease. The protective chemicals are produced by grape skins in response to fungal infection or after exposure to sunlight.
While red wine is made by fermenting the juice of the grapes along with the grape skins, white wine is traditionally produced without the skins. As a result, red wine generally contains significantly higher concentrations of resveratrol and saponins and offers wine drinkers greater protection against a number of common ailments and illnesses.
According to University of California researchers, saponins appear to be just as important as resveratrol in lowering cholesterol levels and promoting heart health. These beneficial plant compounds, also found in olive oil and soybeans, are thought to bind to cholesterol in the body and help prevent its absorption.
In terms of uncovering additional health benefits of drinking red wine, 2007 has been a very good year. Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham recently reported that male mice treated with resveratrol had an 87 percent reduction in the risk of developing prostate cancer compared to rodents that did not receive the nutrient.
Earlier research conducted by University of Alabama scientists revealed that resveratrol-treated female mice demonstrated significant reductions in their risk of developing breast cancer.
While resveratrol shows potential in the prevention of cancer, several studies suggest that it also may be beneficial in the treatment of the disease. In the laboratory, the plant compound has been shown to slow the growth and spread of malignant tumors, and in some cases, it can induce cancer cells to self-destruct.
While American researchers continue to unravel the mysteries of wine's cardiovascular perks and cancer-fighting properties, Italian scientists are exploring its antibacterial effects. The results of a recent study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry demonstrated that both red and white wine are effective in controlling the growth of several strains of disease-causing streptococci bacteria.
Based on the findings of their research, the scientists concluded that wine might be useful in the prevention of tooth decay and could reduce the risk of acquiring specific types of upper respiratory tract infections.
The antibacterial properties of wine also may offer a significant measure of protection against common food-borne illnesses. Earlier this month, researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia reported that compounds in red wine appear to reduce the risk of infection with harmful bacteria, including E. coli and Salmonellas species.
Especially promising is the finding that red wine may discourage the growth of Helicobacter pylori, a bacterium transmitted by food and water. In the United States, H. pylori infection is a primary cause of stomach ulcers and acid reflux symptoms.
In spite of its potent antibacterial properties, red wine does not appear to harm the beneficial bacteria that normally inhabit the human gut. Known as probiotics, these friendly microorganisms are essential for proper digestion and immune function.
Previous research has shown that while the consumption of beer and liquor may to suppress the immune system, drinking wine does not have a similar negative effect.
The key to deriving the greatest health benefits from wine is to drink it in moderation. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that translates to no more than two 5-ounce glasses a day for men and a daily maximum of one 5-ounce glass for women. To reduce the risk of birth defects, pregnant women should avoid drinking alcohol altogether.
Excessive consumption of any type of alcohol, including wine, can be harmful to your health. In addition to the potential for addiction, drinking beyond moderation can increase the risk of accidents and injury, cirrhosis of the liver and certain types of cancer.
Most physicians agree that if you currently don't drink alcohol, it's probably best to continue to abstain. But if you enjoy the taste of red wine, you can feel good about drinking an occasional toast to your health.
Rallie McAllister is a board-certified family physician, speaker, and the author of several books, including "Healthy Lunchbox: The Working Mom's Guide to Keeping You and Your Kids Trim." Her website is www.rallieonhealth.com. To find out more about Rallie McAllister, M.D., and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.