There’s something special about wine that you just don’t see with other drinks. Where a gin and tonic is decent, and a beer is chilled, a glass of wine is something far beyond. It’s classy. It’s cool.
And we love it.
The top wine producing countries make more than 25 billion litres of the stuff yearly, worth many billions of dollars. While some of that is cellared — i.e. stored until it is fancier — much of it is drunk immediately. The US alone drinks more than 3 billion litres of wine every 12 months, which is roughly equivalent to the amount of water used each year by residents of Reykjavik.
The thing about wine is that it is an alcoholic drink. And, as everyone knows, alcohol is pretty bad for you. It’s linked to numerous cancers, liver disease, and nasty things like motor accidents and assaults. So it’s no surprise that the one thing we love to be told is that actually, this thing that is terrible for us might actually not be so bad.
Enter the newest study.
For the last few weeks, there has been an enormous cacophony of stories coming out about wine. Apparently, contrary to our expectations and the messaging from health professionals around the world, red wine might actually be good for you.
Or, at least, your teeth.
Everyone is talking about a new study that has come out looking at how polyphenols, a compound found in red wine, may prevent bacteria growing in your mouth. I say may, because this was not some large-scale human study, it was not a randomized-controlled trial that would prove that polyphenols prevented tooth decay.
This research was what’s known as a “lab-bench” study. This means that it was very preliminary work that took place almost entirely within a scientific lab. This type of research is extremely important to the process of developing new drugs, because until you know how something works on some cells in a lab it’s hard to know how it might work on some cells in a person’s body.
Basically, the scientists in this study took some mouth cells in a dish, added polyphenols and bacteria, and checked what effect the polyphenols had. They found that polyphenols prevented bacteria sticking to the mouth cells, which is important because bacteria sticking to your mouth cells is a primary cause of dental disease.
So what does this actually mean in terms of wine and your mouth health?
Unsurprisingly, not all that much.
To get a dose of polyphenols the size of which they used in this study, you’d have to drink liters of booze, as well as somehow managing to soak your teeth overnight. Not only that, but this study didn’t look at the complex environment of the mouth, just some cells in a dish. It’s an open question whether this effect would be seen if you, say, drank a bottle of shiraz one night.
And the worst part is, wine is terrible for your dental health. There is strong evidence that alcohol in general is damaging for teeth, with the high sugar content and acidity of wine making it even worse.
The positive benefit of some polyphenols on your dental health is vastly outweighed by the negative effects of drinking wine. Think of it like raisin muffins: you are eating something a bit healthier, because of the raisins, but it’s still mostly muffin. Red wine might have some positive effects, but you’re still getting a huge amount of bad stuff in there as well.
We love stories about wine being good for us. There’s one at least every month. Whether it’s because of antioxidants, resveratrol, “moderate drinking” curves, or polyphenols, nothing captures our attention like an article telling us that wine is actually great for our health. It isn’t — there are mountains of evidence of that — but it would be so wonderful if it was.
Who wants to feel guilty every time they chug down some merlot?
Ultimately, this study is a step towards an interesting treatment. We’ve known for some time that polyphenols might have an antibacterial effect in the mouth, and it’s fascinating to have some confirmation of that, but it’s a long way from a useful treatment.
But even if polyphenols do end up being effective — in actual live people rather than in a lab — red wine still won’t be a healthy choice. You need high concentrations of the chemicals on your teeth for hours at a time, something that even the most dedicated wine-drinker would be hard pressed to manage.
Red wine is delicious. Drink it because of that. Just don’t trick yourself into thinking it’s healthy. Limiting your alcohol intake where possible is always going to be better for your health.
That being said, I’m off to have a glass of Hunter Valley sangiovese. I’ll just be sticking to one.