Is red wine really good for you ???

7 Sep

As part of the assessment for my rational thinking course I get students to work up their own example of ‘bad’ science reporting as a presentation to the general public. I try to dot my teaching with examples so that the students have something to work from when constructing their own presentations. I’m thus always on the look out for new examples, to add to things like homeopathy and the MMR vaccine that I already talk about.

fountain

My interest was piqued by a series of adverts on London’s underground system for a product called ‘Fountain’ calling itself the ‘beauty molecule food supplement’. Fountain is being promoted by the UKs leading pharmacy, Boots, and judging by the display in my local store (see picture below) they expecting to sell an awful lot of it. The ‘beauty molecule’ in question is Resveratrol, something I’ve come across before in relation to claims about the health benefits of red wine.

photo

The idea that red wine has health benefits has become very well established in the UK over the last five years. Get a group on middle class English people around a table with a bottle of red wine and you can guarantee that someone will say that it is ‘purely medicinal’. Running my usual test what the British public think ( a search of the Daily Mail website) produced a huge range of alleged health benefits of red wine :

The anti-ageing cream that’s made from red wine: Antioxidant found in grape skins can reduce wrinkles and lines

‘Miracle ingredient’ in red wine could help people live longer and more energetic lives

New drug being developed using compound found in red wine ‘could help humans live until they are 150’

(That is just a sample of the health ‘benefits’ of red wine)

What is really intriguing about this is that the vast majority of the research that all this is based on has not been with human participants. Interestingly, even the web site of Boots is clear that “Many of the headlines about the possible anti-ageing and disease fighting possibilities for resveratrol have come from laboratory or animal studies rather than evidence from trials involving humans”. Even more damning is the idea that to get the equivalent dose of resveratrol used in some mouse studies a human would need to drink 60 litres of red wine a day !

drunk_mouse

All this alone seemed link a really nice teaching example, but I came across a really interesting thing when I looked at resveratrol studies that did use human participants.  A recent study from the University of Copenhagen (admittedly with a small sample) suggests that resveratrol supplements might actually block the health benefits of exercise in older men.

Taken together this seems like a really good demonstration for students of how fairly thin pieces of research can get picked up by the press and rapidly established in the public consciousness. I also think there is an interesting ethical discussion to be had here about what pharmacies should be able to promote. Boots of course also sell homeopathic products, criticising them here might not get very far !

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