Look at those goddamn French dudes. Blackening their lungs on cigarettes so strong they wouldn’t pass a car-smog check, eating rich, buttery, decadent dishes for every meal, and still they outlive us! It’s what’s been known for a while as the French paradox — and a notable component, it’s long been thought, is the fact that they also traditionally subsist on a steady diet of wine.
So what would happen, then, if you were to replace all your beer and liquor consumption with wine? What if wine was the only alcohol you ever drank for the rest of your life? Would this switch make you live longer? Would all those delicious antioxidants give you some kind of immortality? How about the vitamin C in grapes? Could you say goodbye to colds? Goodbye to wet brain? Is this really the French secret?
Alongside Chris Gerling, a researcher and senior extension associate at Cornell University’s Department of Food Science — a guy who gets paid to study the chemistry and microbiology of alcohol! — we’re uncorking some answers.
What would happen if I drank only wine?
Before we get into that, a few quick disclaimers: Nutrition science is a continual roller coaster of one study says this, another study says that; Gerling’s opinions are his and others will have theirs; and thirdly, humans are complex systems that we’re not even close to fully understanding — different chemicals do different things to different people’s bodies and we’re generally a long way from figuring out why.
“When [scientists] do studies, we look at how a compound behaves in a few cells, and we know that’s way too simplistic — or we stick a whole bunch of it in a mouse and see how the mice do,” Gerling says. “It’s hard to know the mechanics. The whole area of human nutrition is difficult.”
Let’s also say, for simplicity, that we’d be substituting the same amount of alcohol consumption — not one glass of wine versus 12 shots of Jameson, for example. (Or alcoholic gravy on Thanksgiving.)
I guess that makes sense.
It probably makes more sense than you think, because the biggest factor in all of this is the dose of alcohol itself. “People always call me and say, ‘I want to make a healthier product’ — a low-carb wine, or whatever,” Gerling says. “And we say, ‘Okay, lower the alcohol.’ And they’re like, ‘Well, we don’t want to do that — we want to take out the other stuff.’ But alcohol is where it’s at: Alcohol is more calorically dense than sugar, so you’re also getting your calories there too. It starts and stops with alcohol.”
So, weight-wise, switching to wine probably wouldn’t make a huge difference?
If you’re switching from a steady regimen of highly caloric drinks — say, triple IPAs or strawberry-flavored whiskey — it might. If we’re talking about a highly caloric sweet wine versus a lower-alcohol dry wine, maybe. But overall, if we’re talking about the same dosage of alcohol, then no, Gerling says it won’t make a huge difference.
“It’s cool that we’ve had so much product innovation going on, but when you say I’m having a beer or a glass of wine or a cocktail or whatever, there’s such a huge universe of what that could mean right now,” he tells me.
Okay, but what about those sweet, sweet antioxidants? I need me some resveratrol!
Yeah, about all that good stuff in wine: They’re in such small concentrations in wine compared to the alcohol you’re consuming that if you were to try to get a full daily dose of antioxidants in wine, it’d become unhealthy really fast. So that dose of antioxidants in wine is actually pretty small.
But the vitamin C! Would a daily drink of wine make my immune system healthier?
“Grapes aren’t very high in vitamin C generally,” Gerling says. “There’s some, but if you’re after vitamin C then probably orange juice is your best bet.”
What about the sulfites? How do they fit in?
Gerling says sulfites are kind of like the MSG of alcohol. People complain about their supposed effects, but studies haven’t shown that people react directly to them. (Some people are sensitive to sulfites, but because yeast creates a little bit of it, these people generally can’t drink beer either.)
Biogenic amines are another compound people frequently complain about with wine. But Gerling says that, again, these are in small enough amounts that the volume of alcohol you’re ingesting is a far more important consideration.
But the headaches!
“People often say, ‘I was in Europe and drinking wine all day long and everything was fine — and now I get back home, I drink a couple glasses and get a headache the next day. Why is that? Is it the sulfites in American wine?’” Gerling tells me. “I always say, ‘It’s because you were on vacation! You didn’t have your job, your kids and your meetings, and you went for a walk instead of slamming coffee.’” Indeed, wherever you are, the main factor in hangovers remains dehydration.
Is wine any easier on the liver?
The liver is by far the hardest-working organ when you drink alcohol. It’s what’s detoxifying the body and breaking down the compounds. As far as we know, your liver doesn’t care whether you’re drinking Corona Light or Smirnoff Ice, it’s just trying to deal with it.
So what you’re saying is, not a lot would happen if I drank only wine?
Afraid not, pal. On a macro scale, not much would change, Gerling says, because again, it’s about the alcohol itself. “From a chemistry perspective, it’s ethanol, and ethanol is ethanol no matter what drink you’re talking about,” he explains. And after water, the main ingredient is always ethanol.
All that extra stuff that differentiates wine from beer or liquor doesn’t add up to a whole lot, then?
Well, look: Never say never. Gerling says there are probably certain compounds that, in certain people, might make a little difference. Maybe some people are genetically predisposed to better handling one type of drink a little more than others. Maybe their microbiome has something to do with it. We’re still years away from learning more about this, though.
Then, ah… what’s with the French?
It’s probably more of an overall lifestyle thing. They generally walk more and eat food that’s less processed — and eat fewer calories overall. If you look at mortality data, Gerling says it seems to indicate that a little drinking is better than no drinking or a lot of drinking. (By the way, those Europeans are drinking a lot less than they used to, and that depiction of the French we started this piece with is pretty outdated — something to think about.)
So, drink wine, or don’t — it doesn’t matter a whole lot?
Maybe a little! But not a lot. What matters the most is how much you’re torturing your poor liver. Maybe think about that the next time you’re at the liquor store and wondering what’s your healthiest option.