You are using an old browser that may not function as expected.
For a better, safer browsing experience, please upgrade your browser.

Log in Become a Member

One to two glasses of wine a day used to be considered harmless consumption. But for some time now, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has been warning that even a single drop of alcohol is unhealthy. This is in line with social and political trends - but not with the latest scientific findings.

Frederico Falcão is a rather quiet type. But when the President of ViniPortugal steps up to the lectern in Toledo, he knows no bounds. At the "Lifestyle, Diet, Wine & Health" congress last October, he sensed a conspiracy "by fundamentalists" who were denigrating wine as poison. One of the reasons for this was a statement by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which warned that after years of systematic assessment and [...] well-documented risks, there is "no safe level" of alcohol consumption "that does not affect health". This is a fundamental departure from the previous state of research, according to which moderate wine consumption is not harmful.

In its "Global Alcohol Action Plan 2022-2030", the WHO still calls for a "strategy to reduce harmful alcohol consumption" instead of banning it. Now it bluntly states: "The risk to health begins with the first drop of an alcoholic beverage." This claim, scolded Falcão, "is based on false evidence". The WHO's current position is contradicted by a three-digit number of studies that prove the positive effects of wine, particularly on the heart, circulation and blood vessels. Red wine thins the blood, improves circulation, its polyphenols catch free radicals and protect coronary arteries from deposits. It helps the body to produce omega-3 fatty acids, prevents arteriosclerosis and occlusion and has a positive effect on cholesterol levels.

Mediterranean diet instead of medication

Red wine fans can also hope for low blood pressure: The risk of a stroke or heart attack decreases. As early as 2021, a study showed that the Mediterranean diet with wine led to a 38 per cent reduction in symptoms in patients already suffering from cardiovascular disease. Hardly any medication can achieve this.

In addition, moderate wine consumption helps against ailments ranging from arthritis to tooth decay: disc wear, bronchitis, damage to the intestinal flora, diabetes, colon cancer, gallstones, uterine cancer, vitreous bone, cataracts, sore throats, lung damage, kidney dysfunction and cancer, osteoporosis, Parkinson's disease, prostate disease, rheumatism, insomnia, obesity.

Red wine is also said to help the body build up immunity against 200 different viruses that cause colds, for example. Its effect against dementia is also outstanding. None of these studies have been refuted to date. Nevertheless, the WHO calls for increased taxes on alcohol and immediately follows up with a "specialised manual on alcohol tax policy and administration". Using Lithuania as an example, it recommends high prices as a means of preventing alcohol-related deaths and provides a figure to back this up: The death rate had fallen from one in 4274 to one in 5525 as a result. This shows one thing above all: far fewer people die from alcohol than the WHO suggests. In Germany, around 62,000 people died as a result of alcohol consumption in 2016. That sounds like a lot. However, around one million people die in the country every year, 360,000 of them from cardiovascular diseases, 230,000 from cancer and around 42,000 from violence or accidents. Alcohol is therefore a cause with rather low relevance - and wine does not appear anywhere in the statistics.

Subjective assumptions versus strong arguments

The Munich-based nutritionist and bestselling author Prof Nicolai Worm considers the WHO's ban arguments to be "assumptions that are very subjective".

The WHO and some researchers are clearly not impressed by these figures. "There currently seems to be strong political pressure to promote the idea that zero alcohol is the only way," complains Professor Nicolai Worm from Munich, a leading German ecotrophologist, renowned expert on cardiovascular disease, chairman of the Wine Information Council and co-organiser of the congress in Toledo. He attests to the "limited evidence" and the "biased interpretation of the institution" used by the WHO, on which many countries base their health policies. Japan, for example, hastily revised its already timid recommendation of one glass of sake per day towards zero in November and openly referred to the resistance of health experts.

The Irish government even deliberately contravened EU regulations with a proposal for mandatory warning labels on wine and beer bottles - and got away with it. Professor Ramon Erstuch, board member of the Spanish Institute of Health, warned against the lack of randomised clinical studies: "Relatively few studies differentiate between the effects of different alcoholic beverages - wine, beer and spirits - on cancer. Wine has a greater protective effect," he emphasised. This is also Worm's main objection: he does not consider the 2018 data used by the WHO to be consistently fact-based. His criticism: "They only ever use assumptions that are very subjective. Two years later, they use the same data to come to a different conclusion."

Less and less alcohol consumption in Europe

A message such as "unclear research situation on the benefits and dangers of drinking wine - scientists hold opposing views" can hardly be conveyed globally by the WHO; "alcohol kills" works much better. The message - or scaremongering - works, even if it misses the mark. Alcohol consumption in Germany and Europe has been declining for years, and wine consumption has also been falling for a long time. Around half of Generation Z, for example, never drink alcohol. As recently as 1980, one in two French people drank wine every day and still lived a healthier life on average than the citizens of the USA. In 2022, it was only one in nine French people. Per capita consumption has fallen by over 70 per cent since the 1960s. Producer associations in Europe expect a further 20 per cent decline over the next ten years.

In Germany, too, the naysayers are persistent. Municipalities in wine regions, of all places, are now banning the serving of alcohol at small events such as street festivals. The Ministry of Economic Affairs of Rhineland-Palatinate, of all places, is setting the pace. This federal state is home to six wine-growing regions that produce two thirds of Germany's wine.

Climate of social mistrust

The blanket attribution of blame, which is based neither on the quantity consumed nor on the type of drink, creates a social climate of mistrust. Mentioning the positive effects of drinking wine becomes irrelevant. Even the harmless adjective "digestible", which traditional winegrowers used for decades to describe their light Kabinett white wines, has been banned by court order. And the glass of wine with lunch is almost history anyway.

What is striking about the sceptical studies, however, is that even small amounts of alcohol are associated with cancer - although most studies only list a few types of cancer. Very few studies provide concrete figures: By how much does the probability of which cancer increase with which amount of consumption? No answer. When asked, the only response is often that there are not that many studies on the subject and that the causal relationship is unclear. In other words: We don't know whether alcohol or another cause is the trigger for these illnesses.

However, it is precisely this lack of clarity that anti-alcohol protagonists often criticise studies with positive results. In these studies, health-conscious, well-educated, sporty people with above-average incomes who eat healthily often do well. It is therefore unclear whether wine is good for the heart or whether nutrition-conscious, well-educated citizens have a low overall risk of cancer and also enjoy drinking wine. Only a few critics apply the indicators the other way round: Does a person who works hard physically, is poorly educated, does not exercise and pays little attention to their health have a lower life expectancy if they do not drink wine?

Most anti-alcohol advocates also ignore study results that attest to an increased quality of life for wine consumers: Some studies have found, for example, that wine drinkers on average have better brain performance and less erectile dysfunction than teetotallers. Red wine drinkers are sexually better stimulated and more active and find sex more satisfying. Wine lovers have more satisfying and stable relationships, are less likely to become depressed and have better social skills. A study by Oxford University also found that people who drink in company have more friends and also feel happier than others. Moderate alcohol consumption is therefore an effective social lubricant, as it stimulates the release of endorphins. In short, people who consume wine in moderation enjoy life more. Perhaps everyone should think about this when they are sober.

More on the subject:

Related Magazine Articles

View All