If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I think that wine is understudied. It has been part of human culture for millennia as beverage, currency, and medicine. But we don’t see many studies of its health benefits, and when they appear, they usually look at one chemical out of the thousands found in wine.
The medicinal applications really interest me, since I’m a chemical engineer and science geek. And the geek in me wonders why, when something was used as medicine for so many centuries, there isn’t more investigation of it now. Realistically, though, I know that it wouldn’t be easy.
For one, wine, or at least alcohol, has been a part of so many sham “patent” medicines through the ages, thought to cure anything and everything, so there’s a stigma to it. Even in the mid-19th century Donizetti satirized it in his opera “L’Elisir d’Amore” (The Elixir of Love). A lovesick farmer begs a quack doctor for the love potion that made Isolde fall in love with Tristan – and the doctor empties a bottle of wine into a flask and gives it to the poor guy (you can see him do it here), admitting to the audience that it’s Bordeaux and not elixir. So it’s hard to say you’re studying the health properties of wine without sounding like Dr. Phony and his traveling medicine show.
Then there’s the problem that wine makes for a tough scientific study. Usually, researchers set out with some kind of hypothesis: Drug A does this, or prevents that. Then they study the effects of Drug A on people who otherwise eat and behave in as similar a fashion as possible. One group gets Drug A and the other doesn’t. And just so that no one skews the results, nobody except some statistical tabulator knows exactly who gets what: everyone gets pills, liquids, or injections that all look the same. Finally, months or years later, the data are analyzed and there’s an answer.
It would be really hard to do this with wine. No one is sure exactly what would they be looking for. It sometimes takes years of seeing things to develop a hunch that might pay off. That was how we got the so-called “French Paradox” back in the 1990s. A combination of cultural observation and some general medical data led to the hypothesis that red wine caused French people – despite having a high-fat diet – to have healthier cardiovascular systems than Americans. Ooh la la! Could it really be true that joie de vivre came in a bottle?
Since then we’ve learned that the French really weren’t all that much healthier than Americans after all. Happier, perhaps, but not really healthier – and differences are getting smaller all the time. But the initial rush of hope that it might be possible to drink your way to health did lead to some studies of a few chemicals found in wine.
The big winner in the study sweepstakes has been a compound called resveratrol, both an antioxidant and an antifungal agent. There haven’t really been human studies of the chemical, although there have been plenty of volunteers (especially if they’re going to get wine). Instead, using mostly rats as subjects, scientists have been looking at resveratrol to see if it can improve health. The results have been promising, but with the usual caveats.
They’re rats, not people – living in a controlled environment, and eating what they’re given. And they’ve been given an awful lot of resveratrol, a lot more than they’d be physically able to consume by drinking wine.
A few weeks ago I got an e-mail notice for a new study about resveratrol and its potential effects on preventing muscle deterioration in zero-gravity environments. I bought and downloaded the study then and spent a half day reading it. Interesting, though not exactly something we’d think of for daily use, but then we had the launch of the last U.S. space shuttle flight, and so everyone is thinking about space these days. MSN picked up the story under that lede and expanded a bit on the earthbound aspects. (After all, we may be temporarily enchanted by space flight, but most of us aren’t getting there anytime soon.)
The study, led by French researchers (naturally!) and published in the Journal of the Federation for American Studies for Experimental Biology, definitely shows that resveratrol could help avoid some of the muscle wasting and bone loss that occur during long periods in space. It may also reverse the insulin resistance that can occur with lack of exercise. No matter how vigorously astronauts exercise in space, they can’t get the same benefits as being upright and exercising in earth’s gravity. And the thought that we may someday want to travel to distant planets makes it important to figure out how to keep astronauts healthy.
So the elegantly-designed study shows that resveratrol can do that, at least in the short term. And maybe, as the researchers say in the very last sentence, there will be some benefit for the sedentary and –more importantly – for the bedridden.
But it’s a real stretch to say, as MSN did, that “red wine could help prevent the ill effects of prolonged weightlessness on the human body.” Why? Once again, rats were given so much resveratrol that they’d never be able to get the equivalent amount from wine.
Rats in this study were given 400 milligrams of pure resveratrol per kilogram of body weight per day. The average glass of red wine contains 1.5 mg, so the rats had the equivalent of 67 glasses of wine – between five and six bottles per day.
The researchers have tried to make a rat-to-human comparison and suggest that this dose is equal to 65 mg/kg body weight for humans. While it’s less per kilo, we weigh more than rats do (not counting some of the rats we see behind our house). For me, this would mean about 4.5 grams of resveratrol per day, which I could get by drinking 3,000 glasses of wine.
You get the idea. Sorry, everyone, but it’s back to the gym, at least for now.
So far, no one seems to have looked at resveratrol in wine-glass sized doses. And no one has looked at resveratrol in combination with any of the other potentially beneficial chemicals in wine. As I said, I understand how complicated this might be. But I have a suggestion.
There are medical population studies that have followed a set group of people over a number of decades. The most famous here in the U.S. is the Framingham study, which has tracked and examined an initial set of over 5,000 people since 1948. There are now data on over 15,000 people. I wonder if it’s possible to analyze data like these and separate the population into wine drinkers and non-drinkers, and then look at general health outcomes in the two groups. It’s not as lofty as the studies of cholesterol and heart disease, maybe, but it’s worth a shot, particularly if the data are already there.
Do you think we could get wineries to contribute some money and pay a group of researchers to analyze the data? You’d think the possibility of being able to someday advertise – legally—potential health benefits of wine would be an incentive. We might have to fend off the health club owners first, but it’d be worth it!
Believe it or not, marriage is one thing that has been shown to improve health and longevity, at least through statistical study. I’m happy to have joined that cohort – Cy and I are celebrating our first wedding anniversary on Sunday. It was a record high for the day for our wedding, the temperature topped off at 101 degrees F about the time we started gathering for the ceremony. The forecast for this year isn’t quite so bad, but it’ll definitely be over 90 degrees and humid.
Since we figured it would be hot we were intrigued when our friend Peter Brett, baker and pastry chef, suggested a cake without frosting. At the time he was working for a group that included an Italian restaurant, and he had developed an olive oil cake with pine nuts for a dessert there. We tried it and loved it – and Peter made us the most beautiful frosting-free wedding cake ever.
He’s now the pastry chef for the Park Hyatt Hotel and Blue Duck Tavern restaurant in DC, and generously gave me the cake recipe to share with you. The restaurant version is baked in a half-sheet pan, 12 x 18 inches. Here there’s half as much batter, and you can bake it in a 13 x 9 pan. Or, if you’d like a taller cake, a 9 x 9 inch square pan or a 10-inch round pan. As you can see in the photo, Peter decorated the cake with fruit and rosemary, and he made a lemon-mascarpone cream to serve with it.
We served first vine’s Champagne Bernard Mante Brut Grande Reserve ($38) with the cake, and of course I think you should, too. Our first anniversary is also the first day when same-sex couples can marry in New York, and we hope you’ll join us in raising a glass to the opportunity for better health and longer life for everyone.
Courtesy of Peter Brett
Makes a 13 x 9-inch cake, or you can use a 9 x 9-inch square or 10-inch round pan
6 ounces (1-1/4 cups) pine nuts, plus 2 tablespoons extra for the top of the cake
2 ounces (5 tb, packed) dark brown sugar
3 large eggs
8 ounces (1 cup) granulated sugar, plus more for the top of the cake
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
8 ounces all-purpose flour (1-3/4 cup, measured by spooning the flour gently into dry measuring cups and leveling across the top with a knife)
1-1/2 teapoons baking powder
½ cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon rind
Optional soaking syrup: granulated sugar, water, Grand Marnier liqueur
Optional accompaniment: 8 ounces Mascarpone cheese, at room temperature, ½ cup prepared lemon curd
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F with a rack in the center. Grease the pan, line the bottom with parchment paper cut to fit, then grease the paper. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour and baking powder and set aside. In a measuring cup with a spout, whisk together the buttermilk and lemon rind and set aside.
Toast the 6 ounces of pine nuts in a skillet over low heat, or in the oven while you’re preheating it. Be careful not to burn them, they toast quickly because they contain so much oil. Spread the nuts on a plate to cool (you can put them in the freezer for a few minutes to speed this along). Grind the nuts in a food processor with the dark brown sugar. Don’t overdo this – they should be powdery but not turned into a paste.
In the large bowl of an electric mixer (fitted with the paddle attachment), beat the eggs, granulated sugar, vanilla, and salt for a few minutes, until light in color and the batter forms a ribbon (this means that when you lift the beater off the batter, batter falls from the beater in what looks like a ribbon that slowly dissolves into the rest of the batter). Don’t go beyond this stage or the cake will be light and dry, rather than dense and moist.
With the mixer on low, slowly pour in the olive oil and beat until the mixture is emulsified. Then beat in the pine nut/brown sugar mixture. Keep the mixer on low, and add 1/3 of the flour mixture until just barely combined. Scrape the sides of the bowl with a spatula, and add half the buttermilk/lemon rind mixture and mix again until just combined. Repeat with flour, buttermilk, and flour until everything is just about incorporated. Remove the bowl from the mixer and gently fold the mixture with a spatula to make sure it’s all mixed.
Spread the batter in the prepared pan, and sprinkle about two tablespoons of sugar evenly over the top. Then sprinkle the untoasted pine nuts evenly over the sugar. Bake for 25 minutes, then start checking the cake. The 13 x 9 pan will take about 30 minutes, the smaller pans may take as much as 50 minutes. You’ll know the cake is done when it is domed, lightly browned, and just starting to pull away from the sides of the pan. You can press the center gently with your finger and it will bounce back. You can also test with a toothpick in the center (it should come out clean or with just a couple of moist crumbs) but I don’t like making holes in the cake.
Let the cake cool in the pan for 20 minutes. Then put a cooling rack on top, tip out the cake, and remove the parchment. Put another rack on the cake bottom and invert. If you’ve made one of the smaller cakes and you plan to keep it around for a few days, you may want to make a soaking syrup for it: combine a half-cup each of sugar and water in a small saucepan and heat to dissolve the sugar. Add two tablespoons of Grand Marnier or Cointreau. Brush the syrup over the warm cake and let it cool completely.
To serve, gently beat the softened mascarpone cheese and lemon curd together and use the mixture to top each piece.