As pollen showers down this time of year, a question that many allergy sufferers may have is whether alcohol exacerbates sniffling and sneezing. The answer is yes, but not necessarily for reasons they may think.
Last week, the Times ran a short piece assessing the claim “alcohol worsens allergies.” Their conclusion was yes, particularly for women.
But the problem is not always the alcohol itself. Beer, wine and liquor contain histamine, produced by yeast and bacteria during the fermentation process. Histamine, of course, is the chemical that sets off allergy symptoms. Wine and beer also contain sulfites, another group of compounds known to provoke asthma and other allergy-like symptoms.
I tweeted about it, curious if anyone had any reactions. I heard back from Sumit Bhutani, M.D., a board certified allergist at Allergy & Asthma Associates in Houston and wine enthusiast (and site reader!). In follow-up emails, he took issue with the treatment in the Times piece for lumping all nasal symptoms as allergies, whether they are or not, and placing undue causality on the histamines and sulfites in wine.
He says that histamines in foods have nothing to do with allergic reactions to those foods, so the amount of histamines in foods is almost never of value to allergists. He sent me a link to this observational study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology entitled “No correlation between wine intolerance and histamine content of wine.”
As to sulfites causing allergies or asthma, Dr. Bhutani says that sulfites cause respiratory symptoms in the small portion of the population already sensitive to them. For them, most whom already have asthma, the reactions are often severe forms of bronchospastic symptoms and may include anaphylactic reactions (you can assess your sensitivity to sulfites by eating five dried apricots, which often have higher levels of sulfites than a glass of wine.) He included a link to another study that tested the theory of low-sulfite and high-sulfite wines in patients with a reported history of asthmatic sulfite reactions. There was no objective drop in the subjects’ breathing test with either wine.
So does the alcohol itself worsen allergies? Dr. Bhutani suggests that when someone’s allergies are flared, alcohol can act as a congestant (a direct vasodilator, in his terms; because it is related to blood-alcohol levels, lower-alcohol wines should cause less congestion.). It’s similar to the way that people with allergies experience increased symptoms around other irritants such as second-hand smoke or strong scents. But he cautions that these indirect irritants are causes of allergy-like symptoms (called rhinitis), not allergies per se. He says that women are affected by this condition three times more than men.
Pity the wine tasters, critics and amateurs alike, that suffer from allergies who may be compounding their problems by tasting at certain times of the year. But if you don’t have allergies, it’s not likely the cause of congestion.
SIPT: white wine
White wine has not ridden the good-for-you train as far, fast or as well as red wine. Yesterday, white wine almost suffered derailment. First, German researchers said that the higher acidity in white wine could damage teeth! (Vigonier begs to differ.) Then, another study of suggested that of all alcoholic drinks, white wine had the biggest impact on women’s fertility in IVF. The Worldwide White Wine Council will issue a new statement shortly.
SPIT: Iron and SIPPED: tannins
Tannins have always gotten the bad rap for mucking up red wine pairings with fish. But it turns out that it’s actually the iron! Read Ray Isle’s funny take on the research.
SPIT: the frontal cortex
“we shouldn’t expect our poor olfactory cortex to be able to reliably assign an exact point score…” [Scienceblogs]
Bloomberg reports : “Half a glass of wine a day may add five years to your life, a new study suggests. Drink beer, and you’ll live only 2 1/2 years longer.” Take that, resveratrol pill–a lot more fun!
SPIT: red meat
The New York Times reports on another study: “the men and women who consumed the most red and processed meat were likely to die sooner.”
Maybe that’s why red meat needs wine–a net effect on mortality?
In 1991, the CBS show “60 Minutes” ran an influential segment of possible health benefits of red wine. Entitled “The French Paradox,” correspondent Morley Safer looked at how on earth the French could eat high fat food, such as cheese, and have low rates of heart failure. Research concluded the key variable was not only the type of fat but also red wine. The resulting demand for red wine, the New York Times wrote a few years later, was seen as “potentially the biggest boon to the wine industry since the repeal of Prohibition.”
Morely Safer was at it again earlier this evening, talking about red wine and lab rats. The subject of the piece tonight was about resveratrol (it’s everywhere!), a component found naturally in red wine that may hold the key to a longer, more slothful life in concentrated pill form, not necessarily wine. So great is the potential for the company making the pills, Sirtris, that Glaxo Smith Kline acquired them for $720 million last year. The pills are five years from being on the market they say in the piece.
Anyway, I’ll leave you to explore tonight’s 12 minute segment over on CBS. Here instead is a flashback to see the original four-minute segment from 1991. How naive we were then, back before certain types of fats were taxed! And how funny that the story features the French paradox and they show bottles of Lopez de Heredia from Rioja!
Remember resveratrol and its life extending qualities, guilt-free gluttony and cardiovascular-improving sloth in laboratory mice? Oh yeah, that was if had the equivalent of 35 bottles of red wine a day.
Such is the premise for a hysterical essay in the “shouts and murmurs” column in the New Yorker. The author, Noah Baumbach, pretends to go on a bender with his mouse and the drunk dialing, sloth-inducing binge is well worth the read. It’s even better than my screenplay, Strange Cru.
Eric Asimov of the NYT had a thoughtful article in Wednesday’s paper about exposing teenagers to wine in the home. It’s great to see a constructive discussion (325 comments long!) on his blog about fostering wine enjoyment in the home rather than the usual discussion of excesses. Related: we’ve discussed kids at wineries and how appropriate is the drinking age of 21 here. [NYT]
SIPPED and SPIT: NYC wine bars
Closing tonight is Divine Wine Bar East. Zagat reports they have having the Mother of All Happy Hours tonight to liquidate (ha) the inventory. Opening: Bowery Wine Company and the new wine lounge at Le Cirque. See the action on the NYC wine bar map!
SIPPED: The audacity of nope
French President Sarkozy, a self-proclaimed teetotaler (although see here and here for evidence to the contrary), has the nerve to ask to see the wine list at Windsor Palace before a state dinner. [Times of India]
“Researchers at the University of Rochester have shown for the first time that resveratrol, a natural antioxidant found in grape skins and red wine, helps to destroy cancerous pancreatic cells by crippling the diseased cells’ mitochondria, the minute organelles found in the majority of living cells which provide them with energy.” [FT.com]
Image: fair-use is made of a reduced size crop of an image that appeared in the NYT attributed to Lisa Adams.
SPIT: Food and wine gone awry
Cabernet and wedding cake, Cabernet and mac n cheese, pulled pork and Burgundy – great comments, and they’re yours! Check out all of the great and wonderful food pairings that knocked your world.
SPIT: the hippocampus!
Wine drinkers have a 10 percent smaller hippocampus than those who drink spirits or beer, researchers say! But I thought “Red wine antioxidants protect hippocampal neurons against ethanol-induced damage“! Ugh, my brain hurts.
SPIT: Chinese wine!
“Millions of Chinese will be disappointed by their first taste of wine” is Jancis Robinson’s assessment of home-grown wines in China. Reporting on a recent trip, she, too, was “disappointed” by the “chemical and occasionally rotten odours” in the wines and general lack of progress with the industry over the past five years. [FT]
SIPPED: Holy wine
In Manchester they may go for Fairtrade wine, but Craig Heffley and Seth Gross of Wine Authorities, a wine retailer in Durham, NC, have another goal in mind for the Duke Chapel: tasty. They plan to start selling a 3L bag-in-box next summer for use in the Eucharist. [Durham News]
SPIT: drinking wine
“The 2006 Insolia from Feudo Principi di Butera…can be pleasurably inhaled for minutes.” Going easy on the hippocampus, was he? [NYT]
Talk about an impossible food wine pairing! Wine critic and blogger Peter Liem visits a sake festival in Japan and eats live shrimp: “My first two passed complacently, but a third, a female full of salty-sweet roe, twitched a little as I decapitated her with my fingers.” What’s his title for this juicy posting? “Niigata Prefecture.” Tony Bourdain, your job is safe–for now!–until Peter recruits a headline writer from Gawker… [peterliem]
While we were all out during the holidays, a fascinating piece by David Leonhardt about tax and wine ran in the business section of the Times. He met with Philip Cook, a Duke economist and Yellow Tail lover, who argues in his book that wine is getting a free ride from a tax perspective. The federal excise tax on wine has stayed level at $1.07 a gallon (about $0.21 a bottle, a tax that must be paid before the wine leaves the winery) since 1992. So Cook argues that we are “subsidizing” wine since the real tax rate has fallen by 33% in that time. He advocates doubling the excise tax on wine and alcohol since he says that the tax doesn’t cover the “costs” of alcohol on society. Here’s the way Leonhardt sums it up:
And for all that is wonderful about wine, beer and liquor, they clearly bring some heavy costs. Right now, the patchwork of alcohol taxes isn’t coming close to covering those costs — the costs of drunken-driving checkpoints, of hospital bills for alcohol-related accidents and child abuse, and of the economic loss caused by death and injury. Last year, some 17,000 Americans, or almost 50 a day, died in alcohol-related car accidents. An additional 65,000 people a year die from other accidents, assaults or illnesses in which alcohol plays a major role.
Wine has ethyl alcohol in it so it contributes to these statistics. But the argument has floated around for centuries that wine is consumed differently than beer and spirits. Since at least the time of Thomas Jefferson, wine has had advocates who see wine as a drink of moderation since it is mostly consumed with food.
Further, since about 1991 when “60 Minutes” popularized the notion of the “French paradox,” there have been many studies underscoring the health benefits of wine, particularly the role of tannins. Heck, resveratrol extends life and promises fat-free gluttony!
So what do you say, does wine still deserve a sin tax? Of course, Cook does not take into account the fact that wine geeks already have been paying a “tax” called the declining dollar. Sobering indeed.
And if we’re opening the discussion of taxes and wine, there’s always the environmental cost of the wine industry in the form of greenhouse gases. A carbon tax, perhaps?