A Healthy Red

Elizabeth M. Stieber
September 01, 2002

The sign says "No Students Allowed." Elizabeth Foley and Joseph Slak proceed anyway, through the chemistry lab at Penn State Beaver and into a back room normally used by lab technicians preparing experiments for their next lecture. The two students have worked in this room before, and they have the milk crates stacked with graphs and notes to prove it. Under fluorescent lights, surrounded by lab equipment, they put on their white coats, goggles, and gloves. Then they open a bottle of wine.

drawing of man lying down drinking red wine

They mix 25 milliliters of wine—about 5 teaspoons—with ethyl acetate. The mixture emits a pungent scent: ethyl acetate, a solvent, is the active ingredient in nail polish remover. After the wine dissolves and the liquid is evaporated off, they're left with a gooey viscous blob that has a light, fruity scent. If they are working with a white wine, the blob will have a pale yellow hue; if they are using a red wine, it will be a deep red. They mix the wine extract with a white powder and watch the reaction.

After three years, countless hours in the lab, and many bottles of various kinds of wine, Foley, a senior in pre-medicine, and Slak, a senior in chemistry, are starting to see a pattern. The white powder causes free radicals—unstable molecules—to form. Compounds in the wine called antioxidants slow down the reaction. After the reaction has stopped, the mixture is placed in an instrument that measures the results. What Foley and Slak hope to find is a linear graph showing that as the amount of antioxidants increases in the mixture, the percent of inhibition—the percent that the antioxidants stop the reaction—increases as well.

"The point of our project is to compare wines for their health benefits," she adds. "We are not the first to do so, but our method is cheaper, faster, and just as efficient."

In 1993, Edwin Frankel, a professor at the University of California at Davis and one of the first American researchers to study the French Paradox, published his research on antioxidant substances in red wine. He had developed a method to study wine by mixing it with samples of human blood. The tests that Frankel performed show why wine taken in moderation—about one drink a day—could prevent heart disease or cancer: It is preventing free radicals from multiplying.

"Ten years ago, the information went public that wine had health benefits," explains John Simpson, an associate professor of chemistry at Penn State Beaver and Foley and Slak's adviser. About three years ago, Simpson read Frankel's study. Simpson, who has studied radicals in prior research, began to think about how he could also work with wine. "A little light went on in my head," he says.

Wine is loaded with antioxidants, what Simpson calls "secret service agents." Imagine, he says, that the president is a molecule in your body. The reactive form of oxygen—a free radical—is a bullet headed directly toward the president. The secret service agents—the antioxidants—step in the way, sacrificing themselves. Our bodies are constantly metabolizing the oxygen that we breathe. Most of the oxygen molecules in our cells join with hydrogen molecules already in our body to form water, but not all of the oxygen molecules are used this way—some form free radicals. These molecules are different from a normal oxygen molecule because they are unstable—they are missing an electron that the hydrogen molecule would have provided. In order to be a stable molecule, all protons and electrons must be present in the molecule. Knowing this, the free radical tries to steal an electron from another nearby molecule. Once it does so, the free radical becomes satisfied, but the robbed molecule turns into a free radical. The result is a domino effect of radicals stealing from healthy, stable molecules.

Most of the time our bodies find a way of putting a stop to free radicals naturally. Yet what you eat and drink, whether or not you smoke, and how much you are exposed to the sun can greatly raise the number of radicals in your body. They can cause your body to start aging faster, they can go after DNA and cause cancer, or they can attack your arteries, causing heart disease.

Antioxidants are usually found as naturally occurring molecules in your body, in vitamins C, E, and beta-carotene, and in many fruits and vegetables, including the grapes used to make wine. Foley and Slak have found that red wine contains particularly high concentrations of one type of very potent antioxidant called polyphenols. Their experiments showed that, although both red and white wines contain antioxidants, red wine has a higher concentration of them. That's not to say that white wine has no effect; it just takes more white wine to equal the effects of red wine. Red wine has a higher concentration of antioxidants because of how it is made. When making red wine, grapes are squashed and left to ferment in their own pulp, with stems, seeds, and skins. White wine is skimmed of its pulp, stems, seeds, and skins, and left only as a juice to ferment.

The quantity of antioxidant can also vary among specific kinds of red wine. Foley and Slak began studying specific wines in December 2001. Foley experimented with Australian Merlot, while Slak worked with California red wine; both found very high concentrations of antioxidants. The reason, they discovered, lies in a red grape called Cabernet Sauvignon. This grape, grown all over the world, has a higher concentration of antioxidants than any other grape. The wine it becomes is also known as Cabernet; it is also found blended in other wines such as Merlot.

"This is probably going to take at least two to three years to build up a significant database," Simpson says. He and his students experiment on many other red and white wines of various countries and vintage years until their results are consistent.

"I can see one day, if the government will allow it, vineyards could perform tests on their own wine. They could put a label on their bottles about the benefits of their wine on your body," Simpson says. "If we can determine that wine can help people, then that can help consumers make decisions on how much to consume and also to realize the health benefits when taken in moderation."

Elizabeth Foley graduated in May 2002 with a B.S. in pre-medicine from the Eberly College of Science and honors in chemistry through the Schreyer Honors College. Joseph Slak is a chemistry major in the Eberly College of Science. Their adviser is John Simpson, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry in the department of science at Penn State Beaver, 105 Baker Bldg., Monaca, PA 10561; 724-773-3875; v6r@psu.edu. Their project is funded by the Schreyer Honors College and the Eberly College of Science and with grants from the department of chemistry.

Last Updated June 15, 2015