Why All the Controversy About the Red-Wine Supplement?

The red-wine supplement resveratrol has been very much in the news in recent years, but reports vary—while some cast doubt, many are very promising about its numerous health benefits. With sales soaring and more than 100 resveratrol supplements available, it’s clear that lots of people want to believe that these products work miracles. Do they? How? And which work best?

To learn more, I turned to Joseph C. Maroon, MD, a professor of neurological surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and author of The Longevity Factor: How Resveratrol and Red Wine Activate Genes for a Longer and Healthier Life. Regarding resveratrol, we talked about what scientists are sure of and what has yet to be proven. Dr. Maroon also shared his insights on how to safely and effectively use this supplement today.

Helpful or Not?

Resveratrol is a beneficial polyphenol (a type of plant chemical) that is particularly abundant in red wine and the skins of red grapes. Many scientists believe it works—potentially extending lifespan and offering protection against heart disease, certain cancers and diabetes—by “switching on” a class of proteins called sirtuins. These help prevent gene mutations and repair DNA damage, slowing the aging process and the development of age-related diseases.

So does it work or not? Let’s take a look at how the controversy got started.

Because there was a load of exciting research supporting resveratrol’s benefits, in 2008, the giant pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) paid $720 million to purchase a small biotech firm that owned the patent for a synthetic form of resveratrol. In an attempt to win FDA approval of this formulation of resveratrol, GSK launched clinical trials—but had to shut them down in April 2010 when some of the participants developed kidney complications. This is the event that led some critics to charge that resveratrol’s benefits were overstated.

But it wasn’t the right stuff: Dr. Maroon explained that it’s important to recognize that the problems stemmed from an artificial form of resveratrol that chemists had concocted in a laboratory. The clinical trial did not use the kind of natural resveratrol that humans have safely consumed in wine and grapes for thousands of years…that has been used in Chinese medicine for centuries…and that has been available as a neutraceutical supplement for about a decade.


The cancellation of the clinical trial resulted in a rush of negative press, said Dr. Maroon, but meanwhile there is plenty of other research on resveratrol that is yielding extremely positive results. Where earlier studies demonstrated that resveratrol brought health benefits to animals, now new ones are examining what resveratrol does for humans (or human cells). The findings suggest that resveratrol can be beneficial in areas such as…

Inflammation control. A University of Buffalo study published in the September 2010 issue of Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism verified for the first time that resveratrol controls oxidative stress and inflammation in people. Twenty healthy volunteers took a 40-milligram (mg) resveratrol extract or a placebo for six weeks, and subsequent blood tests revealed lower levels of inflammatory cytokines in the resveratrol group. Inflammation lies at the root of devastating age-related illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and Alzheimer’s, Dr. Maroon notes.

Cancer prevention and treatment. In a 2010 laboratory trial at the University of Rochester Medical Center, investigators discovered that resveratrol may help combat pancreatic cancer. They added 50 mg of the supplement to one group of human pancreatic cancer cells and nothing to the other and found that the cancer cells treated with resveratrol responded more positively to chemotherapy. Other research suggests that resveratrol guards against cancers of the skin, breast, liver, lung and colon.

Protection against diabetes. Scientists at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University report that resveratrol improves glucose metabolism in adults with prediabetes.

Improved heart and brain health. A March 2010 review in Genes & Nutrition summarized existing reports on the cardioprotective and longevity aspects of resveratrol, which protects the linings of blood vessels in the heart to prevent blood clots and other damage. In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of 22 healthy adults reported in the June 2010 issue of American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, British investigators at Northumbria University found that resveratrol increases oxygen uptake and blood flow to the frontal lobes of the brain (the site of cognition and problem solving).

Want to Try It?

To supplement your diet with resveratrol, Dr. Maroon says to look for products made with trans-resveratrol—the active form of resveratrol polyphenols made from the skins of red grapes. An average dose consists of 250 mg to 500 mg a day, and scientists have detected no significant side effects at these doses. Expect to pay on average $40 for a 30-day supply. Dr. Maroon recommends the following brands…

  • Vindure 900. A mixed polyphenol supplement based on Harvard University’s resveratrol research. It can be purchased directly from Vinomis Laboratories.
  • ResVitále Resveratrol. A resveratrol supplement from French red wine vineyards. Resvitale.com.

Whether you choose to take supplements or not, it certainly makes sense to eat plenty of resveratrol- and polyphenol-rich foods. Go for variety in your diet, because different plant compounds interact synergistically with one another to provide more powerful health benefits. Choose items such as red grapes…red wines including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir (in moderation, of course)…pure red grape juice (high-quality organic, not from concentrate)…unroasted peanuts…dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa)…green tea…and blueberries, cranberries and pomegranates.