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Wine’s fall from grace

Summer is over. It is back to a new school year, a new start and work. The days have become noticeably shorter and once the sun has disappeared over the horizon the evening air is gently chilling. Daytime, however, is still mostly bright and warm, carrying with it the echoes of holiday enjoyment and carefreeness. “Sensommar”, late summer. The streets of Stockholm are bustling once again with local inhabitants back from time off. The wine trade is in full swing again, presenting the season’s new products and trends. Restaurant terraces are full of happy diners sipping on transitional rosé.

Summer is the period of the year when alcohol consumption is at its highest in Sweden. This would point to a rather responsible society that mainly consumes alcohol during leisure time and vacation as opposed to during the working week. On the other hand, this could also translate as overcompensation for not spreading drinking evenly out over the working weeks resulting in excessive drinking over the summer months.

Drinking in large amounts over a short period, in other words binge drinking, is, as most 
know, highly damaging to health. Drinking wine in moderation, on the other hand, provides health benefits. In men over 40 and post-menopausal women alcohol wards off the risk of a stroke or a heart attack (Alcohol in Moderation). Moreover if the alcohol is red wine it also protects against free radicals and the ageing process. Or so we have been led to believe…

Not too long ago I came across a 2016/2017 report, Alcohol and Cancer, published by IOGT-NTO, the Swedish Society of Medicine and CERA in cooperation with Forum Ansvar. The report focuses on alcohol as a cause of cancer. It explains how research has clearly linked seven types of cancer – including breast cancer – to the consumption of alcohol. It aims to prevent the occurrence of the disease through increasing public awareness, which in Sweden is allegedly the lowest in the EU.

Whilst most of us are aware of the health damages caused by the overconsumption of alcohol, what did come as a total surprise was that the report sets the danger threshold for alcohol intake at a new low. Moderate or low consumption –  not so long ago thought of as the key to a healthy life – according to new findings is putting your life at risk. Alcohol is carcinogenic and damaging to health. With the consumption of alcohol, the risk of cancer is ever present. Reducing the amount of alcohol consumed merely lowers the risk of contracting cancer. “30% of all alcohol-attributable cancer cases in Sweden are caused by moderate or low levels of alcohol consumption” (Alcohol and Cancer, IOGT-NTO, 2016/2017).

Wine's downfall

Ideas about most things come and go. What’s in today is out tomorrow. Alcohol, a potion with both pleasure inducing and poisonous properties, is a constant subject of controversy. But why has the wind changed? Is consuming alcohol comparable to smoking? Is it a habit that needs to be kicked? I contacted Sven Wåhlin, a doctor and expert in the field of alcohol and health, working at Riddargatan 1, in Stockholm.

Sarah Jefford. Red wine in moderation has for some time now been considered to have health benefits. These are mainly attributed to the antioxidants, the procyanidins found in grapes. What do you think about the recent launch on the Asian market of a wine called Vitis Vinae that has been made from a selection of grapes with high levels of procyanidins?

Sven Wåhlin: There are more anti-oxidants in an onion than in a bottle of wine. Moreover, oxidation isn’t all bad. It also has a positive role. But the negative effects of the alcohol outweigh any positive ones from the anti-oxidants. 

SJ. Why has drinking alcohol in moderation, particularly red wine, been considered a contributing factor to a healthy life?

SW. Studies have indeed shown that light or moderate drinkers have a reduced risk of contracting a number of life-style influenced diseases. Determining whether or not this lower risk is due to the consumption of alcohol is complicated. Researchers have been unable to find a perfect reference group. In the main, the evidence for alcohol’s ability to prevent disease is considerably weaker than the evidence for alcohol having a wide range of damaging effects.

SJ. Why has moderate drinking lost its stars?

SW. A new Swedish study claims that information gathered on the health benefits of moderate drinking is wrong. It has revealed that the group of non drinkers – used in comparative studies of non drinking versus moderate drinking – were reformed alcoholics and people abstaining from drink for health issues. As a consequence, the non drinkers have shown up in study results as unhealthy and the moderate drinkers as healthy.

SJ. This view that moderate drinking is a health risk, is it mainly Scandinavian or is it global?

SW. The positive effects of alcohol are increasingly coming under criticism. There are more and more articles being written about the harmful effects of alcohol and lots of corroborative new studies are being published and underway. In the British Medical Journal the positive effects are evaporating. (SJ. This seems in part to be due to the improvement in the methodology and research tools which put into question past results http://www.bmj.com/content/357/bmj.j2353). Back in 2011, the WHO published a “Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health” where alcohol was found to increase the risk of cancer, and notably breast cancer with as few as two drinks per day. There were too many confounders and more research was needed for the evidence to be conclusive but moderate drinking was already suspected of being damaging.

SJ. Is this the end of one or two glasses of wine with a meal?

SW. Consumers need to be informed and should not be led to believe that drinking alcohol is healthy. Alcohol is not good for your body but driving cars is more dangerous than moderate drinking…

1 Comment

  1. Mikael says

    Very interesting and I wonder what the long term implications for the industry will be. Alcohol levels have been persistently rising; at the same time non-alcoholic alternatives are being developed. Maybe the future from a consumer perspective does spell lower or no alcohol?


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