There’s a lot of talk at the moment about ‘Clean Wine’. The marketing line? Commercial wines are full of additives and are bad for you, but this Clean Wine (which has a pretty normal range of commercial additives: bentonite, added yeast, sulfur dioxide, and it’s filtered) isn’t bad for you. So you should stop drinking all those famous wine brands, and switch to Clean Wine.
I want to address a couple of questions that this raises. Is commercial wine really bad for you? And related to this, is wine good for you?
This is a very confused conversation. People bring a lot of baggage into the realm of diet and health. Some myths need to be busted here.
‘Natural’ is not necessarily good. I was walking my dog a few years ago, and found a patch of wild peas. It was quite a big patch. I picked a pod, and tried them. They were delicious. I thought: let’s make a foraged pea risotto. Then I googled wild peas and found out that they are mildly neurotoxic so it’s probably not a good idea to eat them. Natural, but toxic. Of course, there are lots of toxic plants. Plants are chemical factories, and one of the things they do is make a wide range of chemicals to stop themselves being eaten. And would you forage mushrooms without checking which species you are about to eat? They are natural, after all.
Is wine good for you? It depends. If you drink moderately (we can discuss moderate consumption later…) then it can be immensely positive. Think of wine as part of a meal with friends or family. It opens us up to each other. It can taste delicious. It can have cultural depth. It can bring people together. In this sense, it is healthful: we are social beings and used correctly wine can have a very positive role in society. It can bring something indefinable but meaningful into our lives, and there is surely a health benefit derived from psychological well being.
But when it is abused wine – like any alcoholic drink – is dangerous. It contains alcohol, and some people become addicted to this, with disastrous consequences. Also, some people get drunk and do silly things. Some people are disturbed and mean and angry, and booze takes off the brakes, and they behave in horrible ways. And the breakdown product of alcohol is acetaldehyde, which has a certain toxicity and raises the risk of cancer a little. [There is also good evidence, though, that wine reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease by quite a bit (see https://www.bmj.com/content/356/bmj.j1340).]
So the overall picture is mixed. Wine can be good for you or it can be bad for you. It depends on you and your choices, and your own particular circumstances.
Are some wines better for you, and are commercial wines full of additives that are bad for you?
First off, commercial wines aren’t full of additives. Yes, there are many additives permitted in winemaking. But people don’t add stuff to wine for the sake of it. Commercial wineries (by this we mean larger wineries who make mass market wines) might be a bit more cautious than small wineries and add a little more just to be safe, or they might be starting with less than perfect grapes, but usually things are added for a good reason in a winery, and the regulations are pretty tight. The full list of permitted additives looks scary, and those names do look pretty chemical, but when people reel them off they are usually doing it from a point of ignorance, and don’t understand why they might be used in some circumstances. Personally, I prefer wines with very little added to them, and I think it is possible to make good wine with sulfur dioxide as the only addition if you are starting off with healthy grapes picked at the right time. But in a commercial winery, trying to hit certain price points, and deliver wines that are absolutely consistent in a relatively short timeframe, then some additions are needed that a smaller winery with more flexibility wouldn’t need.
Second, even with some of the permitted additions, commercial wines are no better or worse for you than natural wines with no additions. They all contain alcohol, and if you drink too much you will get drunk and feel hung over the next day. Hangovers are caused by dehydration plus the build up of acetaldehyde (the first breakdown product of alcohol). Natural wines can give you a hangover just as bad as that experienced from cheap supermarket wine.
There is so much nonsense in many conversations about diet and health. Our bodies are pretty flexible, and as long as we have a varied diet, and don’t eat too much, we’ll probably be just fine. It helps that we feel good about what we eat (there’s a strong influence of psychology on our physical wellbeing) and it’s good to avoid too much sugar, but generally speaking the main challenge facing those of us who have a western-style diet is eating too much. Mix your diet around a bit and it should be fine. Faddy diets probably work mainly through reducing net intake. Our livers are really good at detoxification! It’s worth pointing out that despite the widely perceived benefit of dietary antioxidants, they do nothing to reduce cancer risk ( see https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/diet/antioxidants-fact-sheet).
If I choose not to drink Barefoot Merlot, it’s not because it isn’t healthy for me. Likewise, when I crack a Ganevat, it’s not because I think it is going to make me live longer, or that if I over-indulge I’ll feel better in the morning. Wine is wine, and unless a producer has added something illegal to it, then it’s fine to drink – as long as you drink sensibly and in the right context.
Reminder: this blog is irregularly updated, but there are daily updates on the main wineanorak site.