For some years now, the “French paradox”—high consumption of cholesterol and saturated fat, yet low incidence of coronary disease, among residents of France and similar heavy wine-drinking regions—has been attributed to the regular consumption of resveratrol, an antioxidant compound found in red wine.

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Resveratrol Does Not Offer the Health Benefit of “Longer Life”

But an international team of researchers, which for 15 years has been studying the effects of aging among people in the Italian region of Tuscany, say that resveratrol isn’t the reason. In this region, supplement use is uncommon, while the consumption of red wine is very common.

The study, led by Richard D. Semba, M.D., M.P.H., a professor of ophthalmology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and described in the May 12 JAMAInternal Medicine, found that the Italians, who consume a diet rich in resveratrol, live no longer than, and are just as likely to develop cardiovascular disease or cancer as, people who eat or drink smaller amounts of the antioxidant.

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More Hype Than Substance

In a press statement, Semba said, “The story of resveratrol turns out to be another case where you get a lot of hype about health benefits that doesn't stand the test of time.” Regarding the consensus that certain foods are good for you because they contain resveratrol, he added, “We didn’t find that at all.”

Study Uses Urine Analysis

For their study, Semba and his team used advanced mass spectrometry to analyze urine samples from 783 people over the age of 65 for metabolites of resveratrol. After accounting for such factors as age and gender, the people with the highest concentration of resveratrol metabolites were no less likely to have died of any cause than those with no resveratrol found in their urine. The concentration of resveratrol was not associated with inflammatory markers, cardiovascular disease, or cancer rates.

But if it isn’t the resveratrol that’s keeping these wine drinkers in such good health, does that mean we can no longer rationalize moderate amounts of red wine as being “medicinal”?

Good News for Red Wine in the Future?

Maybe there’s good news yet to come, the researchers said, noting that as yet unknown compounds in such foods may still be conferring health benefits. Despite the negative results of this study, Semba admitted in the press statement that other studies have indeed shown consumption of red wine, dark chocolate, and berries to reduce inflammation in some people, and they do appear to protect the heart. He suggested, “The benefits, if they are there, must come from other polyphenols or substances found in those foodstuffs. These are complex foods, and all we really know from our study is that the benefits are probably not due to resveratrol.”