Can you remember the resveratrol craze of the early 2000s, when wine was touted as the Fountain of Youth?
Forever obsessed with the French paradox (“Why aren’t those goddamn French fat like us when they’re constantly eating butter and fat, and drinking to boot?!”), American researchers identified a compound in the antioxidant-laden skins of red grapes which was suddenly touted as an explanation.
And before you knew it — even before a sufficient toxicological study! — the founder of Sirtris Pharmaceuticals was boldly ingesting resveratrol capsules and encouraging family and coworkers to do so, spurred on by results that shocked the world: purportedly, mice injected with ginormous amounts of resveratrol were able to exercise twice as long as normal, with even healthier hearts directly afterwards1.
Resveratrol was as “close to a miraculous molecule as you get”2. Here’s how the story went: grape skins contain polyphenols, antioxidants which are in essence antibiotics. These antibiotics are there for a distinct purpose: to protect the grape from fungal attack. Fungus attacks the grape, the grape detects it, and a chemical reaction is triggered which ‘activates’ the defensive chemical within the grape skin. Obviously resveratrol levels are quite low in the thin-skinned Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon grapes which undergo noble rot3. Since fungal infections are more common in cooler climates, grapes grown in cooler climates have a higher concentration of resveratrol4.
As is the case with so many other pharmaceutically effective drugs, as luck would have it, there is a wholly unintended positive effect on the human body5. Obviously the grapes didn’t via some empathic moment of evolution one day dream of helping their human caretakers trump their biological clocks. The hypothesis advanced by Sirtris Pharmaceutical was that the chemical compound resveratrol activated a sirtuin receptor in human bodies, which in turn deactivated a group of enzymes linked to cellular aging. Switched off the aging function, as it were.
In short, Dr. David Sinclair, the founder of Sirtris Pharmaceuticals and a Harvard professor, claimed to be on the road to the Great Liberation.
Spoiler alert: it was a bust. For starters, the entire antioxidant cancer and age prevention model is now dead6. In the case of Sirtris, researchers working for pharmaceutical companies manipulated data7; other objective, disinterested results came back less than stellar.
While the antibiotic compounds embedded in grape skins do indeed have a marginal positive effect, if you want to mimic those bionic mice, you’ll need to drink a kiddie pool full of wine. The ethanol would kill you first. And simply ingesting oodles of resveratrol in concentrated pill form doesn’t work either.
GlaxoSmithKline finally dumped Sirtris Pharmaceuticals in 2013 after having paid a whopping $720 million to acquire it in 20088.
That should have been the end of the resveratrol story. But once breathless coverage of a ‘miracle drug’ reaches the public via trusted media sources, logic no longer reigns: the glimmer of the miracle cure will endure in the public mind long after data comes back showing it is a sham. And dietary supplement manufacturers, those fly-by-night peddlers of miracles who to this day operate in a terribly poorly-regulated environment, will continue to rack up millions of dollars of sales based on those received notions of a miracle cure. And that corporate shill that is Dr. Oz, America’s favorite TV doctor whose dubious marketing claims prove true less than half of the time, certainly isn’t helping.
Don’t believe me? Want to peer into the gaping maw of the dietary supplement marketing beast? Just click the image of the Queen of Babylon astride her beast below for a taste.
It wasn’t long before wine producers themselves jumped on the resveratrol marketing goldrush. Oh, how the ‘wine as a drug’ marketing beast was riled! An entire set of grapes and wines were found to have higher resveratrol content (weird-assed Southern US Muscadine and Scuppernong grapes,Vitis lambrusca, Amarone, and also some Spanish reds given their intense macerations — even if maceration was curiously later found to be irrelevant), and a highly illegal marketing blitz was rolled out shortly before the very research which supported it was yanked out from under the beast’s feet. Or almost: growers are still exploiting the idea of resveratrol, either feigning ignorance or simply capitalizing on received notions; see here, or here.
In a world dying for a sip from the Fountain of Youth, the allures of immortality and eternal beauty soon silence any pangs of rational thought that might call into question the logic of one’s actions. Quite simply: we want to believe. Just like GlaxoSmithKline. Just like all the ladies who will buy wrinkle cream with resveratrol cited as an active compound. Just like all the folks buying red wine who think resveratrol will magically provoke the French paradox inside of them, in spite of their otherwise completely unchanged diets and exercise habits.
FOUR WEIRD TIPS FOR A HAPPY, HEALTHY LIFE
Here’s a plan to extend your life: ignore the hype surrounding resveratrol and eat a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables. Spend all the money you were going to waste on supplements and wrinkle creams on a nice bottle of wine instead. Share that bottle over a nice dinner with people you love, and move on with your life. Savour each drop.
- http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/17/health/17drug.html?ei=5070&en=d8f9b2e21e814cd8&ex=1181275200&adxnnl=0&adxnnlx=1181171762-n9yR5u5SzvND9+cUJV4dkg&pagewanted=print&_r=0 [↩]
- http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/08/business/yourmoney/08stream.html?_r=0 [↩]
- “During noble rot development in Sauvignon or Sémillon grapes from the Sauternes area, levels of trans-astringin, trans-resveratrol, trans-piceid, and pallidol are quite low.” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11902955 [↩]
- Kopp P. Resveratrol, a phytoestrogen found in red wine. A possible explanation for the conundrum of the ‘French paradox’? European Journal of Endocrinology 138:619-620, 1998. [↩]
- It is thought that millions of undiscovered therapeutic chemical compounds which are far too costly to chemically synthesize exist in the Amazonian rainforest, and are being wiped out every day with deforestation. We’re pissing away our medicine chest. [↩]
- http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/prevention/antioxidants [↩]
- In 2012, the University of Connecticut announced that it had concluded that Dipak K. Das, Ph.D., a professor in its Department of Surgery and director of the Cardiovascular Research Center, was guilty of 145 counts of fabrication and falsification of data and that the university had notified eleven journals about this problem . In recent years, Das had gained attention for his reports on allegedly beneficial properties of resveratrol. As of March 2014, journals had retracted 20 of his papers, many of which were repeatedly cited by others. Das died in 2013. http://www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/DSH/resveratrol.html [↩]
- http://www.xconomy.com/boston/2013/03/12/glaxosmithkline-shuts-down-sirtris-five-years-after-720m-buyout/ [↩]