#Health & Fitness
Is White Wine Just as Healthy as Red?
by Allison Ford
Seems all science can do is whine about white wine’s nutritional inferiority.
In 1991, British medical journal the Lancet published a paper that gave wine lovers everywhere a reason to rejoice. In searching for the cause of the so-called “French paradox” (referring to the fact that French people are thought to experience a far lower incidence of heart disease, even though their diet is rich in butter and fat), researchers theorized that a liquid lunch was what did the trick. Despite eating all the croissants their whittled waistlines desired, the French stayed healthy because their diet regularly included red wine.
People have extolled the benefits of red wine for centuries, but since the 1990s, it has been shown to be a “superfood” many times over, protecting the body from heart disease, stroke, cancer, and countless other chronic maladies. A diet that includes moderate amounts of red wine can reduce mortality from these afflictions by 30 to 50 percent, according to some studies. But one group of people isn’t so thrilled by the good news about red wine—people who prefer white wine and feel that their beverage of choice has been unfairly maligned.
It’s in the Skin
The reason red wine gets so much credit is that it’s full of a potent blend of some of the strongest antioxidant chemicals found in nature—even more potent than vitamins C and E, which are considered some of the most powerful. Besides polyphenols, flavonoids, phenolic acids, and other bioactive compounds, red wine contains resveratrol, a chemical that has shown remarkable promise in protecting the heart and brain from damage, reducing inflammation, and reversing harmful health conditions. These helpful compounds, found in the skins of grapes, appear more abundantly in red wine than in white, because red-wine grapes stay in contact with their skins for much longer in the winemaking process, while white-wine grapes are separated from their skins early on. So naturally, much of the published research shows that when it comes to preventing colon cancer, stroke, diabetes, and heart disease, red wine should be people’s beverage of choice.
White or Red … or Both?
Not all researchers believe in the power of cabernet over chardonnay, however. Some studies have found no discernible difference between the health benefits of drinking white wine versus red. Besides the chemicals that are unique to wine, alcohol itself can be a powerful and beneficial compound (in moderation, of course); it increases the absorption of other antioxidants, boosts the level of good (LDL) cholesterol, thins the blood to prevent heart clots, and promotes relaxation, which can help avert stress-induced illnesses. Since white and red wines contain similar levels of alcohol, in this respect, they have the same positive effects on the body.
Resveratrol is produced on grape skins to protect against fungal infection, so the way the grape is grown is more indicative of its body-boosting power than the color of the wine is. The amount of antioxidants found in wine varies depending on the grape varietal, the growing region, the climate of the area, the composition of the soil, how the wine was filtered and processed, and whether or not it was stored in oak. A red wine produced by a region hostile to resveratrol production can be less potent than a white wine produced from grapes grown in more favorable regions, such as Sardinia, Spain, and southern France. The Grenache grape is known for producing some of the greatest amounts of resveratrol of any varietal.
While most studies look at the composition of red wine versus white wine, some researchers have focused on studying the drinkers themselves. Although we tend to think that red wine is what protects the body, it may actually be that red-wine drinkers are already healthier and therefore less likely to develop those chronic diseases in the first place. Studies show that regular drinkers of red wine are less likely to smoke than white-wine drinkers, and more likely to eat a Mediterranean-style diet low in saturated fats.
It’s Okay … Be a White-Wino
At the end of the day, it’s a toss-up. Some research has demonstrated a sizable advantage for red wine, and a few studies suggest that both kinds of wine have about the same effects. Even if the jury’s still out on which is better for overall health, there are a few clear-cut advantages to choosing white over red. For one, white wine tends to have fewer calories, although it varies by varietal (sweet wines, like rieslings, contain more sugar and therefore more calories). In general, though, white wine is a better choice for people watching their weight. Another benefit is that it is far less likely to trigger headaches, especially migraines. Red wine, more than any other alcoholic beverage, is a known trigger for many migraine sufferers, and even healthy people often avoid it and its side effects, which can sometimes occur after as little as one glass. While it’s unknown whether it’s the sulfites, tannins, or other compounds in the wine that cause the discomfort, red wine does have up to 200 percent more histamines than white wine, which explains some of the headaches, nausea, and inflammation many people experience after drinking it. White wine has no such side effects. White wine also has none of the known medication interactions that red wine does.
Although the evidence is mixed, drinking one glass of wine per day does seem to be a healthy habit, although for nondrinkers, eating a couple of cups of blueberries or raspberries per day would provide the same amount of antioxidants. But whether you prefer white wine or red, neither one can compensate for a poor diet, a lack of exercise, or an unhealthy lifestyle, and drinking more than the recommended one glass per day can actually make a person more susceptible to chronic diseases, totally outweighing any benefits. To complement an already healthy life, though, a glass of wine a night is a well-earned pleasure, and whether it’s red or white, it is a good source of antioxidants and other beneficial compounds. And the best part? It’s what the doctor ordered.
Updated October 15, 2010