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Health Benefits of Wine and Chocolate

thumb_100_9160.jpgYou've probably seen a news report, documentary, or newspaper or magazine article about the health benefits of drinking wine, particularly red wine, and eating dark chocolate.  What is all this buzz about?  In a nutshell - or a candy wrapper, if you like - wine and chocolate contain flavonoids, antioxidants, and other substances which may help the body protect itself against aging, heart disease, cancer, and other diseases.  Curious about what all these terms mean?  Read on!

Flavonoids help modify the body’s reaction to allergens, viruses, and carcinogens.  They have anti-inflammatory properties, and they are powerful antioxidants, protecting against free radical damage.  Reactions between free radicals and DNA are thought to be the root cause of many forms of cancer.  Free radical damage to cells can also cause aging, and may be linked to Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s. 

Free radicals are a necessary part of life, but the body has ways to minimize and repair damage caused by them.  Antioxidants, most commonly the vitamins A, C, and E, and polyphenols, are part of the frontline of defense.

Resveratrol, a substance in red wine, stimulates genes that mop up free radicals, stabilize blood glucose levels, and make cells healthier.  However, you may have to drink so much wine to produce significant effects from Resveratrol that the negative effects on your body would outweigh the positive ones.

The FDA suggests that one to two glasses of red wine per day might help reduce cholesterol and decrease the chance of cancer.  We also know that alcohol itself might be beneficial to organs, including the heart and brain.  However, with wine or any alcoholic drink, it is possible to have too much of a good thing.  In excess of moderate consumption levels (1-2 drinks per day for women, and 2-3 drinks per day for men), alcohol’s negative effects on your body would cancel out any positive effects from flavonoids or antioxidants. 

In the 1990’s many Americans became enamored with wine drinking as a result of a documentary called “The French Paradox”, which investigated the fact that heart disease is less common in France than it is in the U.S.  The French attribute this to their high consumption of wines. 

Indeed, it does seem that in  France, and many other European countries, most people drink several glasses of wine on a daily basis and seem to suffer no ill effects – in fact, they are often healthier than we are here in the U.S.  Is wine the sole factor here?  Certainly not.  Diet and lifestyle – different foods, smaller portions, and more walking – definitely play a part in the healthier European lifestyle.  But, France and other countries do show us that wine consumption can be a part of a long, healthy life. 

One key to drinking wine healthfully may be pairing it with food.  In Europe, wine is not usually consumed as a drink all by itself, but is an integral part of the meal.  Learning to tell which wine goes well with different foods is a useful skill that you can develop through tasting, and experimentation.

As it turns out, scientists have recently discovered that alcohol was not the factor in lowering the incidents of heart attacks among the French.  Rather, they discovered that grapes grown without fungicides naturally develop fungi-protecting chemicals.  It is these natural chemicals that have heart protecting properties.  Some grape varieties have higher concentrations of these chemicals than do others.

Cocoa or dark chocolate (which has a higher cocoa content) is another source of flavonoids and antioxidants.  Some studies have shown a small reduction in blood pressure after people consumed about 100g of dark chocolate daily.  No connection has yet been made between dark chocolate and cancer prevention, but we never know what the researchers will discover next!  In the meantime, a little dark chocolate a day might not be a bad idea.  However, once again, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.  Despite its heart protective properties, don’t forget that chocolate still contains calories!

How to pair wine with chocolate

The wine should be at least as sweet, or a little sweeter, than the chocolate.  Match lighter chocolate with lighter bodied wines, and stronger chocolate with more full bodied wines.  Milk chocolate might pair well with Pinot Noir, or a light bodied Merlot, for example.  Rieslings, Muscats, and other dessert wines also pair well.  Dark chocolates might go well with Cabernet or Zinfandel.  However, we think you should experiment and find your own favorite pairing!

Don't miss "Red Wine and Chocolate", a special President's Day Weekend event in the Yakima Valley.

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