Red Wine And Cancer. Again.

August 6, 2009 at 3:36 pm (Media) (, )

The Daily Mail has managed to produce yet another masterly headline: “It can prevent cancer and blood clots. Now red wine could stop inflammation too”. Really? Red wine prevents cancer?

Well, it might not be quite that simple. Resveratrol, as I’ve noted* before, “is also found in cranberry, grape and (apparently) peanuts” so, firstly, one does not need to drink red wine to obtain resveratrol**. It should also be noted that red wine contains alcohol and other components that may not have such beneficial effects on the human body as are claimed for resveratrol (depending on the amounts consumed). When it comes to red wine preventing cancer, it should be noted that “A huge number of observational studies have now been performed in real living humans, finding that people who drink more have more breast cancer”, as Ben Goldacre wrote when discussing an article in the Telegraph that claimed (in the headline, no less) that “Red wine could help prevent breast cancer”. It’s worth quoting this section of Goldacre’s article in particular:

The story follows a standard template which they clearly now teach as valid in all journalism schools: a food contains a chemical, the chemical does something in a dish on a lab bench, therefore the food kills cancer in people. Or rather, red wine contains resveratrol: this chemical has been found to increase the activity of an enzyme called quinone reductase, which converts a derivative of oestrogen back to oestrogen, and that derivative can damage DNA, and damaging DNA causes mutations, and mutations cause cancer, so therefore, in the world of journalists, red wine prevents breast cancer in people.

This latest article in the Daily Mail goes on to claim, on the basis of a study into “the effects of resveratrol on two groups of mice exposed to a strong inflammatory agent” that “the drink blocks two key proteins in the body to prevent inflammation” – but the research was into resveratrol rather than red wine (and conducted in mice rather than humans).

I don’t just blame the newspapers for the way such studies are reported. For instance, here is a quote from the editor of the journal that published the latest study into the effects of resveratrol on mice: “The therapeutic potential of red wine has been bottled up for thousands of years, and now that scientists have uncorked its secrets, they find that studies of how resveratrol works can lead to new treatments for life-threatening inflammation”. Why, thank you for your contribution Dr Gerald Weissmann, editor-in-chief of the FASEB Journal.

I’ve written before about the Media’s Red Wine Obsession and discussed articles in the Independent, the Mail, and the Telegraph. They all seem to refer to research conducted into resveratrol, often animal studies or lab bench studies, and sometimes referring to injections of this substance. Rarely do they even mention research into red wine itself.

What effect does the media’s constant encouragement of the belief that red wine is good for us actually have? Well, it’s difficult for me to say as I am not aware of any research into this specific point. However, I do note that one paper states that “The upswing in CVD risk with three or more drinks per day is sharp and emphasizes that benefit from alcohol is limited to moderate consumption only. This upswing also cautions against any public health recommendation to drink alcohol, since many persons will not or cannot limit their intake to moderate levels.”


*This was in a blog post in which I criticised the Daily Mail for using a study that reported benefit for resveratrol injections by headlining a piece “Is a glass of red wine the way to perk up your painful back?”

**I note that this paper states (in the context of the cardiovascular benefits of red wine) that “moderate red wine drinking, in the absence of contraindications, may be beneficial to patients who are at risk of atherosclerotic cardiovascular events […] a diet based on fruits and vegetables containing flavonoids may be even more beneficial.” If it’s true that flavonoids (such as resveratrol) are beneficial, then you don’t necessarily need to drink red wine and it may be better to get your flavonoids from fruit and vegetables.

Note: I am not a doctor or a dietitian. You should not take health advice from me. My point here is simply that you should not take health advice from the newspapers. If I have another point it is probably that institutions, press offices, journals, editors, scientists, newspapers, and reporters should all be more cautious in how they disseminate information.


  1. The People’s Medical Journal « Stuff And Nonsense said,

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