Resveratrol in a red wine sauce: Fountain of youth or snake-oil?

March 13, 2013 by Stephen S. Holden, The Conversation
Resveratrol is being be touted as the latest wonder drug that will add years to our lives. Credit: Greg Bishop

Resveratrol, a molecule found in red wine (and red grape skin and elsewhere) is back in the headlines after an international team of researchers published a paper in the journal Sciencelate last week. The news made headlines around the world.

Researchers believe resveratrol could extend the human life span, and protect people against a wide range of diseases such as cancer, , 's, and .

But is it too good to be true?

Is resveratrol the latest wonder drug that will add years to our lives? Or is this simply the newest science and marketing spiel that will take the rest of our lives to unravel?

And what if resveratrol does not live up to its promise? Who is to blame? The scientists? The media? The marketers? Or the gullible fools who make up the general public?

The health-giving properties of have been advanced as a possible explanation for the French Paradox, the observation that the French have relatively low heart despite a high-fat diet. Researchers suggest that the resveratrol in the red wine could be a contributing factor.

The promise of resveratrol has been escalated with research suggesting that it has the capacity to activate a protein called SIRT1 found in mammals. SIRT1 is one of a larger class of proteins called sirtuins that have been shown to extend the life span of yeast, worms, flies and, maybe, mice.

Yes, "maybe mice" because whether it extends a mouse's life is disputed. In fact, the truth seems less clear and more highly valued than a couple of cases of 1950s Grange Hermitage.

Despite doubts about the real value of resveratrol, in 2008 GSK paid $720m for SIRTRIS, a company established by some of the scientists advancing the positive claims for resveratrol.

This may just be the latest attempt at finding the fountain of youth. Credit: jaci Lopes dos Santos

The paper published recently in Science simply reaffirms an earlier claim against contrary evidence. This is science as usual; a scientific shoot-out at the frontier of knowledge in an effort to establish truth.

But some of the claims for resveratrol certainly seem overstated. We are, after all, talking about research that, to this point, has been focused on relatively short-term effects observed on just a few leaves on the phylogenetic tree, in carefully controlled laboratory conditions.

Despite the hype about the connection with red wine, even the researchers admit that the amount of resveratrol in a glass or three of red wine is insignificant relative to the dosing that showed effects in mice. Even so, one of the researchers admits taking resveratrol supplements perhaps to amplify his claims in a style akin to Australian Nobel-laureate Barry Marshall.

So, it may be premature to assume that these findings generalise to humans in the wild.

Add to this the problem of falsification. No, not philosopher of science Karl Popper's notion of falsification as a basis for advancing scientific knowledge, but falsification in terms of made-up data. A number of published studies showing the benefits of resveratrol have been retracted for being fabricated.

All this before the media and marketers get to create a label and write advertising copy to make an appetising and digestible sound-bite (or tipple) for the masses.

The great problem here for seekers of truth is to separate fact from fiction, to separate the infinitely more nuanced reality from vastly simplified human representation.

"Science," said Karl Popper, "may be described as the art of systematic over-simplification." And if scientists are bad, then the media and marketers are probably even worse.

Still, they are all simply selling a story; it appeals because people want to believe it.

The search for the fountain of youth has gone on for millennia. And this search has uncovered just one thing – the spring of human hope flows endlessly. We are hopelessly hopeful.

Our eternal optimism offers value to medicine through the placebo effect, which suggests that people's beliefs can help their own healing. Sadly, this also means that it can take a long time for people to realise that they have been duped.

And anyway, who is to blame when the whole thing is a product of human nature? Do we blame the public for their unbridled optimism and desire for a quick fix? Or the scientific, media and marketing professions for desiring social and financial success?

The flipside to all this is that some of the claimed benefits of resveratrol are available to the public right now. Sirtuins can be activated by exercising a bit more, and eating a bit less.

But that's not a very interesting story; fiction feeds dreams while the facts foster drudgery.

The amount of in a glass of red wine is unlikely to have any effect on your health, but if it makes you feel better, raise a glass to the placebo effect. And the proof that science, media, marketers and consumers can together create much value from very little.

Explore further: Does moderate wine consumption improve lung function?

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not rated yet Mar 13, 2013
Try MaxHealth Labs Resveratrol a Liposomal Resveratrol. Calculates out to over 200 glasses of wine. try that for a new age resveratrol. Tablet form of resveratrol is destoyed in the stomach and a glass of wine has a trace amount. Liposomal Technology is the only way.
not rated yet Mar 14, 2013
not to mention the ethanol will have more undesirable consequences than resveratrol positive.
1 / 5 (1) Mar 16, 2013
The great problem here for seekers of truth is to separate fact from fiction, to separate the infinitely more nuanced reality from vastly simplified human representation.
Well, that's a mouthful.

Okay, let's separate the fact.

1. The fat content of the French diet is equal to the fat content of the English diet.
2. Englishmen have four times the incidents of heart disease then Frenchmen.
3. The southwest region of France - the Gers region close to the Spanish border - is where you find the wines with the highest concentration of resveratrol, because they make theirs the old fashioned way, known as vinifi l'ancienne. This technique allows the wine to maintain contact with the seeds and skins during the slow fermentation process. The Gers region has the highest proportion of men aged 90 and over.

Resveratrol has been found to contribute to elasticity of the arteries, therefore plaques can't form, as they do in hardened arteries.

conclusion: Red wine with your meals is healthy.
not rated yet Mar 16, 2013
The great problem here for seekers of truth is to separate fact from fiction, to separate the infinitely more nuanced reality from vastly simplified human representation.

... and then go on to exemplify the quote

Looking over the world list in life expectancy, the main thing that jumps out is wealth. The rich live longer than the poor. By a lot.

A bunch of non-wine countries out live France. France isn't really statistically different from Sweden, Israel, Singapore or Canada. And, like they say, you're going to need 100's of glasses of wine to make a difference. No one does this, so whatever the difference is, it isn't the wine.

2nd. To get enough Resveratrol, you'll need to take a supplement that gives you a massive amount. The problem is, who knows what massive supplementation with any chemical really does? Almost always it does harm, that's why finding a *safe* effective drug is so hard. I'm a tad skeptical, but just did an hour of exercise -- feels good.
1 / 5 (1) Mar 18, 2013
Exercise is overrated. It will wear you down and kill you before your time. The man who popularized jogging for health, James Fixx, died at age 52 of a heart attack. He had just completed his daily run.

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