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Red Wine Isn't as Healthy as Everyone Thought, Says UK Government

If you drink it for the health benefits, it may be time to reconsider.

Angelo Amboldi/Flickr

Suddenly, justifying that third glass of wine by telling yourself it's healthy may prove difficult: A new report just issued by the UK government is turning long-held notions about the health benefits of red wine upside down.

It's long been accepted that moderate consumption of red wine is heart-healthy, thanks in no small part to a 1991 60 Minutes report on the so-called "French Paradox" in which reporter Morley Safer declared that the French may enjoy lower rates of heart disease due to a diet high in cheese and wine, particularly red.

But now, the UK government is singing a different tune: This morning, the Chief Medical Officer issued new guidelines for alcohol consumption which warn that drinking any amount of alcohol — including that half-drunk bottle of Cab currently languishing on your kitchen counter — increases the risk of a number of types of cancer, including breast cancer. And the widely accepted notion that moderate alcohol consumption benefits heart health? According to the new report, that only applies to women 55 and over.

And that's not all: "In the greatest overhaul of official medical advice on alcohol in 20 years, men are now being advised to drink the same level of alcohol as women — no more than six or seven pints [of beer], or small glasses of wine, a week," The Independent points out.

The UK's advice for pregnant women has also changed: While previously it was said that a drink or two a week was fine, now it's been declared that "no level of alcohol is safe to drink in pregnancy." (Meanwhile, U.S. dietary guidelines already say that pregnant women should not drink any alcohol.)  Overall, the report concludes, "there is no justification for drinking for health reasons."

What sort of implications could these new revelations about alcohol's deleterious health effects have on the wine industry, if any? "While indications have been around for awhile that the health benefits of wine have been overstated, an overturning of the the idea of wine as a healthy beverage could undo 24 years of increased wine consumption on the part of Americans," says Eater wine contributor Levi Dalton, noting that wine consumption shot up in the 1990s, with the tide turning strongly in favor of red following the "French Paradox" news. "That change could have a profound impact on the restaurant business, for which wine is a prime profit driver, and for the global wine market as a whole, as the American market is most the important single market for a number of different categories of wine. But at the same time many Americans have now developed a taste for wine, and they may be frankly unwilling to give up something that they enjoy now that they have found it."

Meanwhile, Cornell University enology researcher Chris Gerling thinks the report's findings may simply help balance out the whole "but wine is healthy!" mantra: "There’s probably some blame to be laid at the feet of some well-meaning wine champions here, because it’s just as problematic to say wine is simply good as it is to say it’s definitely bad, health-wise," he says. "Resveratrol and the French Paradox may have pushed the public opinion needle a little too far in one direction for people like the Chief Medical Officer, and now it feels like going slightly too far the other way is acceptable, if only for balance."

If alcohol's negative effects on the body outweigh red wine's potential benefits, what about switching to a teetotaler-friendly version — grape juice? Not so fast, says the New York Times, noting that it's high in sugar and hasn't been linked to any health benefits. (Not to mention you likely won't find it on the menu at your local fine-dining institution.)

Of course, it will remain to be seen whether Americans take this advice to heart, or dismiss it as the crazed ramblings of our neighbors across the pond. In any case, it seems likely that the old adage of "everything in moderation" will still reign supreme. And it's probably safe to say avowed wine lovers won't be giving the stuff up in the face of a very slight cancer risk increase — but they may be forced to reconsider long-held ideas about wine as a health elixir.