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The wonder-supplement resveratrol became a little less wonderful when Danish scientists announced that is doesn't seem to reverse the metabolic problems associated with overweight. But perhaps they were testing the wrong component of red wine.

Resveratrol is the miracle supplement of the 1990's that has not yet proven its potential in reversing the diseases of aging.

In the 1990's, scientists discovered a major challenge to the prevailing theory that high-fat and high-cholesterol diets invariably cause heart disease. What came to be known as the French paradox showed that some groups of people who eat high-fat diets, such as the French, tend to have less heart disease, rather than more.

It couldn't possibly be that the cholesterol hypothesis of heart disease was wrong, so researchers began to look for other explanations of the relative health of the butter- and cheese-loving French. Researchers found their answer in red wine. So it was natural for them to assume that the chemical in the skins of red grapes that makes red wine red must be the magic bullet against the ill effects of obesity and high-fat diets that protects the French from the effects of their diet.

A $750 Million Investment in a Supplement Before It Was Proven

A tiny start-up company called Sitris announced that it had found the explanation for the healing properties of resveratrol. The red grape phytochemical activated a gene called SIRT1, as later science has confirmed, and this gene held the key to longevity, a proposition that later science has not yet confirmed. Pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline was not going to let the potential multi-billion dollar market for a plant-based rejuvenator get away, however, so in 2006 it bought Sitris for $750 million.

Unfortunately, even though resveratrol has potent effects on individual cells in Petri dishes and test tubes, and it may have some benefits for some people under experimental conditions, no clinical trial found clear-cut benefits of resveratrol for any human health condition, and that study was not published until February of 2013.

In 2013, a group of Spanish scientists released their findings of a study of the use of a "resveratrol-rich" grape extract (that is, the supplement didn't just contain resveratrol) for volunteers who already had coronary artery disease. The scientists found that taking the grape extract supplement resulted in greater production of an anti-inflammatory hormone called adiponectin. Levels of this hormone are lower in people who are obese. The scientists had to explain away, however, a finding that increased levels of adiponectin are sometimes associated with increased risk of death, not a ringing endorsement for the use of resveratrol as a supplement for heart disease. And when resveratrol was not combined with other red grape antioxidants, as in a recent Danish study, there were no benefits at all.

"Pure" resveratrol, by the way, isn't extracted from red wine. It's extracted from plant called knotweed.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Poulsen MM, Vestergaard PF, Clasen BF, Radko Y, Christensen LP, Stødkilde-Jørgensen H, Møller N, Jessen N, Pedersen SB, Jørgensen JO. High-dose resveratrol supplementation in obese men: an investigator-initiated, randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial of substrate metabolism, insulin sensitivity, and body composition. Diabetes. 2013 Apr. 62(4):1186-95. doi: 10.2337/db12-0975. Epub 2012 Nov 28.
  • Tomé-Carneiro J, Gonzálvez M, Larrosa M, Yáñez-Gascón MJ, García-Almagro FJ, Ruiz-Ros JA, Tomás-Barberán FA, García-Conesa MT, Espín JC. Grape resveratrol increases serum adiponectin and downregulates inflammatory genes in peripheral blood mononuclear cells: a triple-blind, placebo-controlled, one-year clinical trial in patients with stable coronary artery disease. Cardiovasc Drugs Ther. 2013 Feb. 27(1):37-48. doi: 10.1007/s10557-012-6427-8.
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