OK, it's not wine. But it has many of its health benefits.
April 3, 2000 (Petaluma, Calif.) -- Even the most heartening news about the health benefits of wine wasn't enough to convince Susan Sanford to imbibe. "I've just never liked the taste of alcohol," says Sanford, 42, a film sound engineer in Northern California. "Still, with all the headlines, you can't help wondering whether you're missing out on something that might lower your risk of heart disease."
Well, Susan Sanford, worry no more. If you don't like wine, the latest studies show you can get almost all the same benefits from grape juice. The reason: Purple grape juice contains the same powerful disease-fighting antioxidants, called flavonoids, that are believed to give wine many of its heart-friendly benefits.
What'll It Be: Wine or Welch's?
The flavonoids in grape juice, like those in wine, have been shown to prevent the oxidation of so-called bad cholesterol (LDLs, or low-density lipoproteins) that leads to formation of plaque in artery walls. In a study published in 1999 in the journal Circulation, researchers at the University of Wisconsin Medical School in Madison asked 15 patients who already showed clinical signs of cardiovascular disease -- including plaque-constricted arteries -- to drink a tall glass of grape juice daily. After 14 days, blood tests revealed that LDL oxidation in these patients was significantly reduced. And ultrasound images showed changes in the artery walls, indicating that their blood was flowing more freely.
Grape juice can also lower the risk of developing the blood clots that lead to heart attacks, according to unpublished findings from Georgetown University researcher Jane Freedman, MD. So can red wine, but in this case grape juice is the more practical way to go: "Wine only prevents blood from clotting [when it's consumed] at levels high enough to declare someone legally drunk," says University of Wisconsin researcher John Folts, Ph.D. "With grape juice, you can drink enough to get the benefit without worrying about becoming intoxicated."
What's more, alcoholic drinks don't seem to improve the function of cells in blood vessel linings the way grape juice does. And alcohol generates free radicals -- unstable oxygen molecules that can actually cause damage to blood vessel tissues -- dampening any of the benefits that red wine's antioxidants may offer.
Even better news, for Sanford and other teetotalers, is that the antioxidants in grape juice appear to linger in the body longer than do those in wine. At the University of California, Davis, researchers took a 1996 cabernet sauvignon, removed all the alcohol, and asked a group of nine volunteers to alternate between drinking the nonalcoholic wine one day and an alcoholic version the next. In their findings, reported in the January 2000 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a key antioxidant called catechin remained in the blood for more than 4 hours after the volunteers drank the nonalcoholic wine, compared to only 3.2 hours for the full-strength cabernet. Apparently, alcohol hastens the breakdown of the antioxidant in the blood, speeding its elimination from the body.
But wine may provide at least one benefit grape juice doesn't: Alcohol has been shown to increase levels of HDL, the so-called good cholesterol, in the blood.
Even so, if you're a non-drinker, grape juice is a terrific way to get many of wine's potential health benefits, Folts says. If you do go for the juice, choose the purple kind, which is far richer in antioxidant flavonoids than red or white. Surprisingly, eating red table grapes won't provide as much protection. That's because the juice is made by crushing not just the skin and flesh but the seeds, too, which are especially rich in flavonoids. White grapes and grape juice won't do either, because they don't contain the flavonoids that purple or red grapes do.
Sanford can now rest assured. With a glass of purple grape juice with breakfast or for an afternoon snack, her heart can realize the same benefits as those of her wine-drinking friends. And if you don't want wine at dinner, uncork one of the fine nonalcoholic reds on the market. They're loaded with antioxidants as well as great flavor -- and you can drink all you like without worrying about driving home.
Peter Jaret is a freelance writer in Petaluma, Calif., who has written for Health, Hippocrates, and many other national publications.
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