Despite a diet chock-full of artery-plugging fats, people living in France are much less prone to heart disease than Americans or Britons. Scientists now say they may have pinpointed the molecular basis for the French anomaly--a compound found in red wine that may stymie heart disease and cancer.
The French passion for fat-laden foods like butter, cheese, rich sauces, and pâté makes American cardiologists blanch. Yet the French death rate from cardiovascular disease is 50% lower than America's and 75% lower than Britain's--a disparity that has become known as the French paradox. Deaths from breast cancer are also less common in France. Many scientists suspect that wine, another staple of the French meal, may be counteracting the harmful effects of a fatty diet. Nine years ago, a 60 Minutes report exploring this possibility had vintners bubbling; it uncorked a 40% rise in wine sales in the United States.
But which of the myriad components of wine might confer protection? Some scientists credit alcohol itself with a large part of the effect, but cancer biologists Minnie Holmes-McNary and Albert Baldwin of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, point out that beer drinkers don't seem to benefit. That's why they focused on resveratrol, an antioxidant compound found in red wine that previous studies indicated could suppress inflammation and cancer formation. They dosed human and rat cells growing in culture with resveratrol and measured the effect on nuclear factor kappa B (NF-kB), a multipurpose protein known to promote cancer growth and inflammation--which is thought to be important in atherosclerosis.
As the scientists report in the July issue of Cancer Research, resveratrol prevented the liberation of NF-kB from storage sites within the cell. As an added bonus, it stimulated cancer cells to kill themselves. Since resveratrol is abundant in purple grape juice, raspberries, and peanuts, teetotalers can reap the benefits of this compound as well, Holmes-McNary points out.
Eric Rimm, an epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health, says the study points to possible new treatments for heart disease. However, he maintains that there's "overwhelming evidence" that alcohol itself shields the heart of wine lovers. To him, the French paradox isn't much of a mystery. Says Rimm: "Hey, it's the ethanol, stupid!"