We’ve all heard about the research suggesting that a daily glass of red wine is good for your health. By why wait a lifetime of steady moderation? “Red defense,” a product I recently heard shilled on the radio, claims to put vino to shame, containing per pill as much of the “good stuff” as 34 glasses of red wine. Indeed, various things with the “Red” tag seem to be part of a sort of a mini-supplement fad these days: another example is Superior Red. You gotta love the list of ingredients on this thing: it starts out with amounts of the usual nutritional components like fiber, protein, & sugar but then goes on say that it contains 150mg of… Watermelon? 100mg of… Blood Oranges? Aren’t fruits themselves made of sugar, fiber, and protein anymore?
In any case, Red Defense is marketed on the idea that if mainstream science suspects that something is good for you, then it makes sense to immediately start imbibing loads of it, proper dosing be damned. Superior Red seems marketed on the idea that lots of really really tiny amounts of lots of different fruits is better than just eating one piece of actual fruit. Both ideas seem profoundly ignorant of human biology: they take decent but preliminary nutrition science about things like flavonoids, resveratrol and anti-oxidants in general and spin them into modern snake-oil hokum. And as we all know, bad ideas deserve beatdowns.
More of a Good Thing?
Most of the marketing oomph from this particular “Red” fad comes from the so-called “French paradox”: the fact that in many parts of France, heart disease is substantially lower compared to the rest of the world despite the prevalence of relatively fatty diets. Of course, the real cause of the paradox is disputed, and there are many factors based on the particular sorts of fatty diets eaten, the climate, and so on that probably play a role. None of these things, however, are easily distilled down into a pill form.
Instead, red wine, which is consumed liberally in the region, has traditionally been hyped as the culprit. And while moderate red wine consumption does seem to have some health benefits, a lot of scientists are also beginning to suspect that it has more to do with the actual alcohol itself than anything else. But, yet again, I don’t think an “alcohol supplement” would be very marketable in the chaste world of naturopathy.
So instead, many folks have been searching what other magical natural ingredients red wine might contain that can be sold for boku moola. On this score, preliminary research focus has centered on anti-oxidants like flavonoids and resveratrol (Red Defense is pushing resveratrol in particular).
The problem with all of this comes from taking some preliminary scientific evidence and trying to translate it directly into a treatment; entirely neglecting the fact that science is likely to change, could be entirely wrong, or that developing effective treatment protocols is often just as, if not more, difficult as discovering the original healthy effect in the first place. It’s as if someone went and manufactured an entire line of cars designed to run on the principle of cold fusion the very day after its discovery was announced… without even waiting to see if the cold fusion claims actually panned out or not (they didn’t).
In the case of Red Defense, the buzzword du jour is “resveratrol,” a sort of plant antibiotic. At least in the case of yeast, flies, and mice, resveratrol appears to significantly increase lifespans. It’s also found in the skin of grapes, and hence in red wine. You probably already saw where this was leading: the French paradox has been cracked! Start chugging the stuff!
Not so fast: while resveratrol supplements may yet turn out out to be worthwhile in their own right, they also just as easily might not, and the research in humans still only in Phase 1 trials. The fact that it increases the lifespan of mice is far less impressive in light of the fact that damn near anything seems to increase the lifespan of mice (which, like all the other animals that saw benefit, is very very short to begin with): the number of times such things have then failed to show any such effect in humans is simply legendary. Many nutritionists have expressed skepticism that oral supplement-grade resveratrol even makes it into the blood stream in sufficient quantities to have its claimed effects in the first place. Finally, the compound oxidizes extremely quickly (meaning most of it may end up being destroyed in the production process long before it even gets into your mouth) unless all sorts of special laboratory-grade precautions are taken (and how sure are you that the supplement makers actually followed these extremely expensive procedures?).
And, perhaps most importantly of all, the supposed role of resveratrol in the French Paradox is deeply suspect in any case: it just isn’t present in red wine in sufficient concentrations to credibly be the culprit, given how much of the stuff is required to produce supermice. Finally, most resveratrol supplements are not made from “red” grapes in any case, but instead from dirt-cheap Japanese knotweed, a fact which is hidden by the use of its species name, “Fallopia japonica,” on the labels.
In short, even if resveratrol someday proves beneficial in humans, the whole “Red Wine” marketing gimmick is an exercise in crummy, misleading science: rushing ahead of the research to try and make a quick buck off of French Paradox hype.
But there’s even an more perplexing degree of ignorance on display here: the implied ideas that either the dose of some supposedly beneficial chemical ingredient just doesn’t matter, or that more of a good thing is always better. Not long ago, I complained that even if people don’t remember much from high-school chemistry, they should at least recall the basic idea that the particular structure and bonding properties of elements and molecules are what determine their properties: it’s not as simple as “ionized chlorine is deadly dangerous, therefore anything that contains chlorine is evil.”
The same sort of thing applies here. I don’t expect most people to remember how to diagram a Krebs Cycle, but the idea that the body reacts to different levels of chemicals and nutrients in all sorts of complex and often counter-intuitive ways should be a pretty basic take-away point. In biology, there is always too much or too little: you can die from dehydration, but you can also die from drinking too much water.
When real doctors make dosage mistakes it can harm or even kill their patients. That’s because they are using real medicines with actual effects on complex human biology. If these effects aren’t correctly tailored or moderated to the particular body its needs, they can cause serious harm. When quacks with miracle pills try to sell you their wares, the fact that they don’t ever seem to care about dosage should always be a big red flag, strongly suggesting that their medications don’t do much of anything, good or bad (and hence pose little danger of lawsuits).
The case of flavonoids, it turns out, is a pretty good example of why the “more is always better” school of thinking makes no sense when glibly applied to every case. Flavonoids (like procyanidin) are yet another suspected culprit for the French Paradox and probably a more reasonable one, with far stronger evidence of health benefits in humans.
So, if they’re good for you, you should drop a pretty penny on buying super-concentrated supplements, instead of just drinking those paltry amounts of wine or green tea, right? Well… no. Because, again, biology is more complicated than that. The story seems to go like this: not only are flavonoids by and large not even absorbed into your system, but the body actively tries to get rid of them as quickly as possible, treating them as foreign substances. It turns out that the potentially beneficial anti-oxidant factors are actually released by the body itself as a by-product of an almost allergic reaction to flavanoids. The punchline here is that initiating this reaction doesn’t really seem to depend on the amount taken past a certain threshold: taking massive doses of flavanoids isn’t actually going to accomplish anything that the small amount in wine couldn’t spark off just as well. A nice juicy orange, or a soothing cup of green tea may not seem as kickass as a big bottle of FLAVONOID MEGADOSE EXTREME, but the science suggests it would probably work just as well.
Of course, a little thing like science isn’t likely to stop a monstrous marketing machine…
Tiny Amounts of Nothing Much at All?
… And so this is where “Superior Red” makes its pitch: dehydrating a cornucopia of different fruits into a special red powder that’s supposed to “support your body’s antioxidant defense system.”
Myself, I can’t quite see why this is all worth the effort. My body’s anti-oxidant defense system hasn’t made any special procurement requests lately, and if it did, I’d probably just have an apple and be done with it. Even if any given ingredient in this particular concoction really does have specific special health benefits, you’re only eating around 100mg of it. Compared to the amount of nutrients you’d get from eating a whole fresh fruit, this is an astonishingly minuscule amount. I know I just got through arguing that more isn’t always better, but “next to nothing” isn’t necessarily always useful either. It all depends on the particulars of dietary biology… a specific empirical rationale which these sorts of “kitchen sink” supplements never seem to bother providing.
Instead, as with most suppli-speak, it’s implied here that a special mix of fruit bits (the “proprietary” ORAC blend) is more “balanced” than, well, just eating fruit as part of a balanced diet. Exactly what is being “balanced,” and against what, is never explained. Also unexplained is why the same extremely precise mix of extremely tiny amounts of fruit dust would be optimal for all people regardless of the rest of their diet. What difference is an additional 150 milligrams of “watermelon” going to make if I’ve already just eaten a couple cups of watermelon balls, weighing in at around at half a million milligrams?
And are the anti-oxidants found in blood oranges in any way chemically different from those in, say, regular (but less flashy sounding) oranges? If so, is there some theory that suggests that having a wide diversity of different sorts of anti-oxidants from different fruits is itself good? Why? Or if some of the nutrients in some fruits are better than others, why not just eat those in significant quantities, rather than insignificant amounts of everything under the sun?
If there’s any rhyme or reason to this teeny-tiny smorgasboard, or any value to taking instead of just eating more fruit in general, I’m not seeing it.
Maybe I’m not meant to. Maybe I’m just supposed to close my eyes, think Red, chug it down, and pretend I’m in France.
C’est la Vie.