Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Wine Science

Just in time for the holidays, the newspapers seem to be very interested in the health effects of alcohol. The idea that red wine is good for you is nothing new, from the resveratrol to make you live longer (although you'd need to drink vats of wine a day to see a real effect), to the polyphenols that keep your heart strong, red wine seems almost like a miracle food. But what about the whites and sparklings?

Well, white wine doesn't seem to have the same qualities, though that has been debated. But according to the British press, champagne, and its cousins prosecco and cava, may actually be good for your heart. It's because these wines are made from black grapes (pinot noir, and pinot muenier), and according to Dr. Jeremy Spencer from Reading University, the qualities of the grapes do make it through into the finished product. Those qualities? Those would be the polyphenols. Polyphenols are small molecules that block the removal of nitric oxide from the blood stream, and nitric oxide is what keeps the blood vessels nicely dilated, allowing blood to flow through easily, reducing heart strain, and lowering blood pressure. The really good news in this is that unless you're drinking blanc de blanc (champagne made exclusively from chardonnay grapes) any sparkling wine made from a red grape will work (chocolate does too if that's your preference).

And talking of wine, according to the Telegraph, the lighting in a room will change how you perceive a wine. In a test using single bottles of reisling and subtly changing light colours, a group of German researchers found some remarkable results. First, if you use red lighting, then people will perceive a wine as sweeter than under other kinds of lights. And then, red of blue lighting will both increase the perceived price of a bottle of wine. why this would be is still unclear, but the effect seems to be real.

This shouldn't be a big surprise. For almost a decade now there have been studies showing how much our perception of wine is influenced by characteristics other than the taste of the wine itself. In fact, in blind tastings, even sommeliers have been known to be fooled by reds and whites, since the line for taste is frequently blurred. And time and time again, scientists have shown that the bottle a wine is poured from will influence how it gets described.

Even history can play a part, as a recent study showed. This looked at the genes of various varieties, and found that chardonnay (which, particularly in Europe, tends to get very little respect), was the child of gouais, a grape that was banned in parts of Europe for being a 'peasant's grape.' The fact chardonnay is a close cousin of gamay noir, shows how arbitrary some of these decisions can be.

When it comes right down to it, the key to wine is finding something you enjoy. And if it happens to be a red wine, or a champagne, then you're getting a health benefit at the same time!

Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

I'm Dreaming of a Green Christmas...

With the Copenhagen conference going on, and the heart of the holiday season, the question keeps coming up of how to keep being environmentally friendly while still enjoying the holidays.

And probably no issue is more highly debated at this time of year than what type of tree to put up, a real one or an artificial one? Assuming of course that you aren't going to forgo trees altogether.

The Victoria, Australia, government is pushing trees in pots, particularly the Wollemi Pine, a rare ancient tree. Not only does it keep your carbon emissions down, but it can help recover a disappearing species at the same time! Of course, here in Canada, Wollemi Pines aren't an option, but there are plenty of pine trees in pots that you could bring in and decorate.

But if you want to stick with tradition, which one should it be? Both sides have their proponents, although it turns out there are strong lobby groups for each option, pointing out the benefits and weaknesses of real versus artificial. The strongest argument I've found was in this article, where the carbon emissions of both are compared. The bottom line? You need to keep an artificial tree for 20 years if you want to compare its carbon emissions from construction with cutting down a local grown tree that was grown specifically for harvesting. And if you know that artificial trees begin to break down after about 9 years, and are mostly made in other countries and then shipped here, real seems to be the best option.

Then, once you've decided on the tree, there's the question of travel. Well, according to this BBC article, if you have to travel, and it's a few hours drive away, you might consider flying. Sure, flying uses a lot of fossil fuels, but a plane is actually more efficient in fuel conversion than a car, so if you fill a plane then your damage per person will be less than if each of you drive. Of course, this doesn't count if you're flying across the continent, or somewhere south, but that's a whole different issue.

In the end though, enjoy the holiday season. It's what we do all year round that really counts. A couple of weeks at this time of year is only a fraction of our carbon footprint. Try and be reasonable, maybe a couple fewer strings of lights, or a slightly smaller portion of meat, and less leftovers, but have a good time!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Getting Down and Dirty

OK, so I didn't blog for a couple of weeks, but this one is worth sharing...

Finally, some solid evidence to support the hygiene hypothesis. You've heard this one before, we need to eat dirt when we're small if we're going to be healthy.

It's an idea that has a solid biological underpinning. When we're small, our immune system is yet to properly develop. Exposure to all the 'normal' stuff in our lives (dirt, microbes and the like), trains our immune system to recognize the good from the bad. The problem, according to the hygiene hypothesis, is that if we aren't exposed to all the normal stuff when we're small, our bodies never learn the difference and so over react when we come in contact with those same materials later. That over reaction is the allergy response. The hygiene hypothesis suggests we should expose ourselves to far more dirt as youngsters if we want to be healthy in the long run. The problem with the hypothesis is that it's relied on epidemiological data for its proof. And, as any scientist can tell you, correlation (which is what you find with epidemiology) is not causation.

A couple of new studies are providing that causation. In a European study a group of researchers found that pigs housed outdoors for the first part of life had higher levels of lactobacilli and less immune activity in their guts than pigs kept in an isolation room. What does that mean? Lactobacilli are known to help prevent E. coli and Salmonella from colonizing the gut, which is good news if you want to avoid food poisoning. And as far as the immune activity, again, if the problem we're worried about is hyperactive immune systems, this is a good thing.

The second study is out of the University of California. Here a group of researchers looked at the bacteria naturally found on the skin. They discovered that Staphylococci sp. produce a compound that blocks a key step in the inflammation process. Which means that when you get a cut or scrape, it's the bacteria on your skin that are preventing your immune system from overreacting. That's a good thing: too much immune response and you'll get puffiness, rashes, heat and extra pain.

What all this is telling us is that we have this highly evolved, and tightly intertwined relationship with the bacteria that inhabit our body. These organisms block 'bad' bacteria from colonizing, and it's when they're not there that our immune system gets out of whack, leading to increased levels of immune response, aka allergies.

The irony is that on one level we appreciate that, as we see ads for yogurt containing high levels of lactobacilli. And at the same time, we live in a world that's selling buckets full of hand sanitizers, which are removing the very bacteria we need to protect ourselves.

What should we do? Follow our mother's advice, wash our hands, don't stick your fingers in your eyes, don't chew on your pen, and respect the fact we live in a bacterial world.

If we respect that, we'll only do ourselves good!