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Posts Tagged ‘science’

Until there is definitive evidence that the unique matrix or “chemical soup” of wine, by itself, leads to healthier outcomes for individuals, we need to stop with this “wine is healthy” talk.  The only thing we can say for sure at this point of the scientific path is that a healthy individual probably won’t suffer any negative outcomes by moderately drinking, preferably with food, and not as an attempt to alleviate stress.  Admittedly, I’m the one pushing last point, but I have good evidence and following that advice definitely will not hurt you.  Having said that…

Are people saying wine is good or bad for you today?  I can never keep up. According to some Google searches, on May 21, 2017 all of the “news” sources that I’ve never heard of viewed wine as health savior, but on May 22, 2017, that all changed.  The Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs published two articles the day before looking at the potential associations between moderate drinking and long-term cardiovascular health.  Both of these articles were critical of how numerous studies conducted previously that suggested (not proved) there is a link between light to moderate drinking and reduced rates of cardiovascular disease may have made a common error in research by assuming that the results seen in the groups of individuals studied were widely applicable to everyone in the general population.  And then this happened:

 

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First, neither of the papers were about wine specifically so let’s tone it down “Starts at 60” (Tag line: “Australia and New Zealand’s, and increasingly, the worlds largest digital media platform for over 60s.”).  Second, neither of these papers proved or even attempted to prove that there is no association between wine and long-term cardiovascular health.  The edition of the journal these articles were published in even opens with the following text (red text mine):

This issue of the journal contains two articles with three associated commentaries on the yet-unanswered question of the association between moderate drinking and cardiovascular health as well as general mortality.

Third, the idea that a single food or drink item should be deemed “Healthy” or “Not healthy” is beyond ludicrous because that’s just not how health works.

In general, this see-sawing you see in the news about whether something is healthy or not is a result of misinterpretations of what the results of a single study or small number of studies say.  Most journalists aren’t great at interpreting scientific literature unless they also have a science background; wine and food writers are especially bad.  As a general rule of understanding scientific research: the more studies that are conducted on a particular question, the less likely any single study is going to contradict all of the research performed before it.  For example, let’s take a look possible outcomes of the question: Is there an association (relationship) between moderate drinking and cardiovascular health?

  • Yes, there is a positive association between moderate drinking and cardiovascular health. (This means moderate drinking could make you heart-healthy)
  • Yes, there is a negative association between moderate drinking and cardiovascular health. (This means moderate drinking could make you heart-unhealthy)
  • No, there is no association between moderate drinking and cardiovascular health. (This means being a moderate drinker in itself won’t determine your heart health)

The results of every study conducted on this question will add evidence to one of these possible outcomes. I generally visualize this as each study producing a single cube of evidence of roughly the same size/weight/volume as any other study that gets filed into one of the outcome columns.  Why the same size/weight/volume? Because an important aspect of the scientific process is that an experiment is repeatable.  The process is highly democratic in this respect which means that a single study cannot overturn the bulk of work done through previous studies.  A single study can influence future studies to be done to repeat the results however, which could lead to a turning of the tide, so to speak, but this process takes time.

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*Not actually representative of the current body of evidence no matter how much we want it to be true.

It is also important to note that in the scientific method there is no point where testing is stopped which is why declarative statements that an ultimate truth have been found are foolhardy.  Yet, there are times when the body of evidence is so large and convincing that it paints a picture of an inevitable outcome.  In other words, the pile of evidence is so vast in one column that the chances of that changing are slim to none.  Human-caused climate change, no association between vaccines and autism, an association between tobacco use and cancer, the theory of evolution, Aaron Berdofe being a pretty cool guy…these are all areas where the evidence paints a clear picture of the inevitable outcome.

But, as the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs pointed out, we just don’t have a clear picture yet on if there is an association between moderate alcohol consumption and cardiovascular health and general mortality.  Same goes for most health related questions about alcohol.  The only certain thing we know about our relationship with alcohol is that if we drink too much we can permanently damage ourselves and perhaps die.  How we define “too much” varies by individual, but that’s why we have population health recommendations about how much is too much.  To a somewhat lesser degree of certainty, we also know that there seem to be few negative consequences to drinking lightly or moderately.  Again, thresholds and circumstances affecting that may vary.

None of this changes the the fact that wine drinkers just want to believe that wine will ultimately make them healthier people.  It’s perfectly natural to hope that our potential problems in the future can be alleviated by either doing nothing or continuing to do the things we currently enjoy.  I do believe that it is within this shared hope amongst wine drinkers that we write articles extolling the health benefits of wine, sell wine by incorporating it in the idea of being part of a healthy meal, or lecture beer drinkers on why wine is better.  I don’t think wine professionals or yes, even health/wellness professionals are being sinister when repeating incorrect or perhaps misleading statements regarding the relationship between wine and health*, but I do wish we’d all start being a little more thoughtful when talking about the topic.

If you are a wine professional, I would recommend you stop using binary descriptors when discussing wine and health like good/bad and healthy/unhealthy.  Adding or subtracting wine to a person’s diet, as we understand it today, does not make that person’s diet healthier or unhealthier.  Are there some interesting interactions that happen when we drink wine that have what we consider to be positive effects on our bodies? Yes, certainly.  There are also some effects we consider to be negative as well, but it’s very complex and research is underway to figure out in exactly what conditions those effects will take place.

It’s also good to remember that what the research says and what the headlines say are not always in alignment.  For example, the studies I first referenced about 1,000 words don’t conclude as the headlines purport that wine is “NOT good for the heart”.  They do suggest that some of the cubes of evidence presented to the “Good for your heart” column (Yes +) maybe need more work done before they can officially be put there.  I would at least recommend reading the parts of the study referenced in an article labeled “Abstract” and “Results” if you can.  Frustratingly though, most writers fail to provide a reference link to the original study they are basing their article off of.  Another frustrating road block you may run into is that the study is behind some journal’s paywall and I doubt you’ll want to pay the $25 to read it.  For that, all I can do is apologize for the world and let you know we’re working on it.

Therefore, until the number of studies performed and the results of those studies give a definitive picture to the question of how wine may affect our long-term health the best answer to give someone asking is a good shrug and tell someone that unless their doctor says otherwise, moderate drinking isn’t going to negatively affect you and too much will obviously kill you.  Of course, if you want to put a twinkle in your eye along with a sly grin and whisper “Maybe there’s something to it…” before taking a thoughtful sip of a particularly enchanting glass of wine, I won’t stop you.  Gourmand’s are willing to take the risk for pleasure, but do they do know there is a risk.

 

 

 

*There are a few companies these days claiming they can prevent headaches or hangovers from wine and there is simply no scientific evidence to back up their claims.  This is somewhat sinister and potentially in violation of Truth In Advertising laws.

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Flavor

Fourth part to a sensory series.  Read Part 1: How We Smell, Part 2: How We Taste, and Part 3: How We Touch.

The past 3 posts of this sensory series have been about how we smell, taste, and touch.  Each of these factors in to what we commonly refer to as the flavor of wine.  A lot of this has to do with proximity.  Each of these items are being processed next to each other in the brain (especially, smell and taste).  In fact, they happen so close to each other that sometimes we even get confused that things we are smelling are actually what we are tasting.  Something cannot smell sweet.  It can only taste sweet.    When the confusion between senses happens consistently, it is known as the condition Synesthisia. Jimi Hendrix could see color when he heard music (Listen to his song Bold As Love to hear about it).  He was a Synesthete.  I don’t believe there is any research on how LSD effects this condition.

Regardless of which wine evaluation methodology you are utilizing: The Court, International Sommelier Guild, or rating system like Robert Parker, Wine Spectator, etc. the majority of what is being evaluated can be encapsulated into flavor.  How We See (The Color of Wine) is next up in the series which is the other (minor) part of wine evaluation.  Yet, there is so much about flavor as we have seen where we have room to personally conclude whether we have preference for something or not.  The subjectiveness of flavor, whether consciously or not, is always somehow factored in to an evaluation of wine.  Therefore, there is an extra layer of complication for the casual wine drinker in finding a wine that they like.  They can’t simply just go to the experts to see what was rated the highest, they have to factor in whether those experts like the same wines they do or not.

This is particularly telling in the US rating systems which were created by people who generally don’t like sweeter wines even though most of the American public secretly does.  This is also mostly why I never rate wines on my blog and try not to use subjective descriptors.  I don’t know you.  Therefore, I could not accurately judge whether a wine is likable to all of you or not, nor could I trust myself to not subconsciously press my preferences on you.  I do however try and list the objective qualities of the wines I am pairing and then let you conclude whether that’s something you’re interested in trying or not.  The other part to this is that because our perception of flavor is so tightly entwined with our emotion and memories (Remember, you are comparing the aroma “image” to your memory stockpile of images to figure out what it is) that something as simple as you having a bad day when you have the wine, could affect your ongoing perception of it.  Tannat is my go-to brooding wine for instance.  Another example is how I have not drank a glass of wine from Bandol since I had it while breaking up with a girlfriend one time.  Is it any wonder that we have both a taste and feeling called ‘Bitter’?

I’m not saying that if we have a bad experience with a wine that we will continue to have a bad experience with it though.  I will drink a Bandol again, and one day you may actually enjoy that wine you thought you’d never like as long as the circumstances are right.  This is due to what is known as the plasticity of the brain.  We change.  What those circumstances are though is what wine and food pairing is all about at a fundamental level.  Previously in the series I mentioned how mental framing and priming can be used to brainwash you and shape how you experience a wine and food pairing.  OK, maybe brainwash is too strong of a word, but part of what I do during Wine and Food Experience events is to shape how people approach the tasting.  The idea behind matching the aromas of a wine to the aromas in a dish are a way to prime the mind to enhance that particular item.  The new wave of molecular wine and food matching is built entirely upon this concept.

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Found within this is the secret to wine and food pairing.  To create a good wine and food pairing, you don’t need to memorize the ingredients of thousands of dishes and understand the differences between wines of hundreds of different regions.  All you need to do is meet the [reasonable] expectation of the person who will be consuming the pairing.  The good news is that this is much easier than people think.  Most people have a pretty vague expectation:  They want to enjoy the wine they are drinking and enjoy the food they are having. They aren’t expecting to have their minds blown or taste something they have never tasted before.  The want agreeable flavor.  I know this sounds unapproachable by average home chefs and their non-existant wine cellars, but trust me.  If you can cook (Or buy, I won’t tell anyone) something you like to eat, and you know of a wine you like to drink, you can make it happen.

Here’s how you do it when you know what you want to cook.  First, tell yourself that this meal is going to be pretty good.  Imagine yourself eating a pretty good meal if you want.  Then, figure out the main components of the dish.  This can be as simple as looking at the recipe you are using or just perhaps recognizing what items your hands are putting in to your cooking apparatus.  The easy part about this is that you don’t have to be specific.  Fruit for instance, can be categorized as to whether it is red, dark, tropical, or stone (apples, pears, etc.).  Then you go to the wine shop and ask for a wine in your price range that has one of those main components in it.  This is called flavor matching.  Lastly, you sit down with someone and enjoy the meal you made with the wine you bought and you actively notice the component of the wine that matches with the food.  Huzzah! You are a pseudo-professional at this now.  What if the wine tastes thin?  Garnish the food with some lemon or another acid.  What if the astringency of the tannins are too much for your liking in the wine?  Back to the lemon/acid, or add some large grained salt.  Problems solved!

Here’s how you do it when you know what wine you want to have.  First, tell yourself that this meal is going to be pretty good.  Then look at the back label for some wine descriptors or Google the wine to find some.  Next, search for some recipes that have one of those components from the wine in it.  Now make your meal and sit and enjoy it with someone.  Huzzah again! You are a gastronomical hero.  Follow the troubleshooting tips in the previous paragraph if you run in to any of them.

The whole concept of flavor matching and very importantly, noticing it, is a big part to enjoying wine with food.  All you are is adding two similar aromas together and by their nature, they enhance each other.  Aroma after all is the main component of flavor.  The tastes mostly follow this additive quality as well.  Bitter + bitter = more bitter.  However, tastes can also be used as fill-ins when you think something is missing from a dish.  Keep in mind that good flavor is all about balancing all of them.  Ayurvedic cooking even makes a point of incorporating all of the tastes into ever dish.  Interestingly, they came up with and still maintain 6 different tastes: Sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent.  You’ll note two of those overlap with items discussed in How We Touch.  Modern research is studying how the lack of flavor balance in meals may be contributing to the obesity epidemic.

If the dish would taste perfect with just a touch of sweetness, but you didn’t add any in, have a wine that is a little sweet.  Of course, a lot of times you don’t know this until you’re in the middle of consumption so you’d probably just get a dash of sugar, honey, maple syrup, or that HFCS you have in your cabinet.  The point is, you have to go in expecting that you might change one minor thing, but with the goal of balancing.  Speaking of which, as far as touch goes, as long as you stick with the salt and the lemon, you’ll be fine there too.

Then what are professionals for? You might now assume that since you can deliver wonderful wine and food pairings now and impress your friends and the ever-growing multitude of lovers that a Sommelier or other wine professional is now obsolete in your life.  Being one of those experts, I will brazenly tell you that in a lot of respects you are correct.  However, if you haven’t bothered to memorize all the general wine descriptors of wines and how they vary between regions, you’ll need someone at the wine shop to point you to the right direction.  Also, did you know that the eugenol in the wine that comes from aging it in toasted oak is also found in clove?  No?  Well you’ll probably want an expert to point out some of the more obscure matches that occur.  Professionals can also help you understand some of the general relationships between acid, fat, salt, and such so you can expand your repertoire and not be limited to the same wine and food pairing every Friday night.

The more you learn about how wine and food work, the more you may seek out the novel and expand your experimentation.  Honestly though, if you can match some aromas and know when to use lemon or salt, you’ll have a great time and get be able to have an enjoyable experience 80% of the time.  The other 20% of the time you can give me a call.  Wine, and by extension, wine and food pairing is much like fashion: It’s more important that you wear something that fits than you stay up with the latest trends or try to make a statement.  Those that can pull off the bold statements either know a whole heck of a lot, or they’ve convinced the world that they do.  Also much like fashion, your preferences may change over time.  And that’s OK too.

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