Red wine, resveratrol and cancer prevention

Research on resveratrol, a compound found in red wine, continues to draw media attention, especially as biotech companies in recent years have poured millions into potential patentable compounds that could have dramatic “anti-aging” properties. One of the most interesting health effects of resveratrol is its anti-cancer power, and so we recently decided to stop in at the National Cancer Institute/National Institutes of Health general information page on red wine, resveratrol and cancer prevention, just to see how this particular aspect is being presented. This federal government site aims to keep up with reseach trends in cancer prevention (though actually this particular fact sheet seems a bit behind the curve), and usually provides a quite cautious viewpoint on the evolving research. Here’s a short extract:

The cell and animal studies of red wine have examined effects in several cancers, including leukemia, skin, breast, and prostate cancers. Scientists are studying resveratrol to learn more about its cancer preventive activities. Recent evidence from animal studies suggests this anti-inflammatory compound may be an effective chemopreventive agent in three stages of the cancer process: initiation, promotion, and progression.

Research studies published in the International Journal of Cancer show that drinking a glass of red wine a day may cut a man’s risk of prostate cancer in half and that the protective effect appears to be strongest against the most aggressive forms of the disease. It was also seen that men who consumed four or more 4-ounce glasses of red wine per week have a 60 percent lower incidence of the more aggressive types of prostate cancer.

However, studies of the association between red wine consumption and cancer in humans are in their initial stages. Although consumption of large amounts of alcoholic beverages may increase the risk of some cancers, there is growing evidence that the health benefits of red wine are related to its nonalcoholic components.

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 Maybe it was the glory of our neighborhood community garden in June that inspired us to write this piece for the next issue of the New York Buyers’ Club newsletter, THE SUPPLEMENT:


Is it just our imagination, or have we detected a growing public interest in the impact of food on our health? Maybe you’ve heard about our new first family, the Obamas, and the vegetable garden they’ve planted at the White House to supply their kitchen with locally grown, healthy vegetables and berries. Or—not such cheerful news–maybe you’ve read about the obesity epidemic sweeping the US, caused largely by mass consumption of fast food and highly processed food products, and linked to devastating increases in diabetes and cardiovascular disease across the population. Or maybe you’ve dipped (or dug) into the writings of food revolutionary Michael Pollan, who’s become celebrated for urging us to eat real food (like our great-great-grandparents ate), shun the supermarket and shop the greenmarket whenever possible, and even plant a garden.

Though the New York Buyers’ Club is a nutritional supplements co-op, we understand very well that food is first. The food we eat every day, what kind and how much, has an enormous impact on our health, and research on diet has brought to light ever more clearly the effects of nutrition on both our physical health and our mental well-being. A few things have been obvious for a while: traditional diets, such as the “Mediterranean diet” or the “Chinese diet,” are much better for you than the standard modern American diet with its refined carbohydrates, bad fats (saturated or trans), excessive salt, super-sized portions of red meat, and mighty rivers of high fructose corn syrup. It’s simple epidemiology: populations that eat lots of whole grains, fruits, nuts, vegetables, moderate amounts of fish and poultry (and little red meat), and rely on traditional seasonings (from rosemary to turmeric) and good fats (like olive and fish oils) end up having significantly lower rates of heart disease, cancer, and even mental health conditions like depression.

Can the clear health benefits of traditional diets be translated in any useful way to the field of supplements? (Supplements are, to repeat, a supplement to food, not a replacement.) One obvious “yes” comes in the increased study and use of fish oil/omega-3 fatty acid supplements over the last few decades, first of all for cardiovascular health, but also—as has been highlighted more recently—to reduce susceptibility to depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Here’s a case in which an individual nutrient within a healthful diet has been isolated and can be delivered as a supplement that bestows health benefits. (Fish oil supplements have a particular advantage over food sources, too: they can be refined to eliminate mercury or other contamination, a growing concern these days, whether you’re eating fresh or canned fish.)

We also know that it’s possible to extract a component from food and use its particular properties to confer a health benefit, while leaving behind other parts that you don’t want or need. This is the case with whey protein powders, which leave behind milk fat, but keep the whey protein with its high nutritional value.  It’s not news that whey protein can help to build and sustain the body’s lean muscle mass (crucial for maintaining long-term health, and especially important for people with chronic conditions like HIV that may impair absorption of nutrients), but research has uncovered as well several important indications of its value in supporting immune function, decreasing the risk of cardiovascular disease, and even serving as an anti-cancer agent.

Foods found in traditional diets continue to be the focus of scientific research on what’s healthy in what we eat, and why. Recently, we looked into a study showing that Chinese women who regularly ate mushrooms and drank green tea had lower rates of breast cancer, or less severe manifestations of breast cancer, than those who didn’t. This kind of nutrition research is about putting two and two together. It was known that the rate of breast cancer in China is four to five times lower than that in most Western industrialized countries; and there had been previous lab studies suggesting the anti-cancer properties of green tea and mushrooms—so why not investigate more rigorously the relationship between breast cancer rates and consumption of these traditional foods?

And here’s another bit of evidence-based food advice. A few months ago our hometown newspaper, The New York Times, featured a piece entitled “The Power of Berries” (Jan. 22, 2009), which detailed the accumulating research on how these fruits help ward off cancers of the colon, esophagus, and mouth. This research built on the well-documented association between diets rich in berries (including black and red raspberries, blackberries, strawberries and elderberries) and lower rates of cancer. One new suggestion emerging from the recent studies is that berries may exert a “genome-wide” anti-cancer effect, meaning that, unlike many current cancer treatments that target only one cancer-promoting gene at a time, berries may target a whole spectrum of cancer-promoting genes, causing them to shut down development of pre-cancerous and cancerous growths. Exciting stuff from the berry researchers! And, there’s a further, practical note: investigations have demonstrated that freeze dried berries and berry powders are as effective as fresh fruit in terms of anti-cancer effect. So even if you can’t eat fresh berries several times a week (an obvious problem for those of us who don’t live where the growing season is year-round), mixing a powdered berry supplement into a smoothie could be just as useful to your health. 

We gave this piece a somewhat tongue-in-cheek title, asking if you, dear reader, were ready to join the “food revolution.” Actually, it strikes us that the current revolution in thinking about our eating habits in many ways involves returning to the old days—to the traditional diets of previous generations, to the old-fashioned idea of raising your own food, or to shopping for locally-grown produce at a greenmarket. Of course we return to these older ways armed with a store of advanced knowledge about why some dietary traditions are healthful, and how they can be adapted to our modern lives. If that’s the definition of the “food revolution,” we at NYBC heartily encourage you to sign up—for your health!

Berries and cancer prevention

You may have caught some recent reports about new research findings on berries and cancer prevention. For example, our hometown newspaper, The New York Times, featured an interesting piece entitled “The Power of Berries,” on Jan. 22 2009, which detailed the accumlating evidence for the efficacy of these fruits in warding off development of cancers of the colon, esophagus, and mouth.

This article paid special attention to investigations conducted by Prof. Gary D. Stoner of the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center. Professor Stoner’s research, like that of others in the field, has built on the well-studied general association between consumption of berries (including black and red raspberries, blackberries, strawberries and elderberries) and lower rates of cancer. It has also been widely recognized that certain compounds within berries, such as anthocyanins (which give berries their color), may be responsible for their most significant cancer prevention effects.

Dr. Stoner’s research has given him even deeper insights into berries and cancer prevention, as he’s come to conclude that berries may exert a “genome-wide” anti-cancer effect, meaning that, unlike many cancer treatments that target only one cancer-promoting gene at a time, the consumption of berries may target a whole spectrum of cancer-promoting genes, causing them to shut down development of pre-cancerous and cancerous growths. All of which leads him to a recommendation: “We know berries have so many effects on processes related to cancer development. They are one of the food stuffs you probably should consider consuming every day, or at least a few times a week.”

There’s one additional, practical note to these studies of berries and cancer prevention: recent investigations have shown that freeze dried berries and berry powders can be just as effective as fresh fruit in terms of anti-cancer effects. Since it’s not always possible to eat loads of fresh berries several times a week, using a powdered berry supplement would seem to make a lot of sense for anyone interested in cancer prevention.

Here is a low-cost berry powder supplement that NYBC has carried for several years:

Berry High (Jarrow)

Berry High includes powdered forms of fruits rich in antioxidants, as well as ellagic acid, anthocyanins and other polyphenols. Each scoop (1 tablespoon) of 6 grams contains:

Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) – 58 mg
Apple juice powder – 3,130 mg
Raspberry – 372 mg
Blueberry – 50 mg
Mountain cranberry – 250 mg
Strawberry – 400 mg
Black currant powder – 200 mg
Grape juice powder – 200 mg
Lemon juice powder – 220 mg
Pineapple juice powder – 150 mg
Guava juice powder – 150 mg
Peach juice powder – 150 mg
Quercetin – 130 mg
Passion juice powder – 100 mg