Too good to be true? A compound that may treat cancer and diabetes, improve cardiovascular function, increase your lifespan…AND it’s found in wine and chocolate!? A quick Google search for resveratrol will unearth pages of companies trying to sell you the “fountain of youth”, a few warnings “not to believe the hype”, and even a few scientific studies thrown in for good measure. So what’s the truth? Resveratrol: wonder drug or over-hyped?
Last Tuesday night, Joseph Bauer from the University of Pennsylvania spoke at the New York Academy of Sciences to help us sort through the sensationalist headlines (my own included) and take a well-balanced look at the science behind these claims. Bauer became interested in resveratrol while trying to mimic the increase in lifespan observed in mice due to calorie restriction, the idea being that perhaps there is a druggable target that could produce the same effects as caloric restriction without, you know, having to eat less. Bauer eventually focused in on a family of proteins called sirtuins, specifically Sirt-1, which controls life expectancy in yeast (Sir2) and mice (Sirt-1). A screen for compounds that activated Sirt-1 by Biomol (now Enzo Life Sciences) turned up resveratrol, a compound found in red wine and chocolate and is now the subject of several preclinical and clinical studies.
Whether wine is a nourishment, medicine, or poison is a matter of dosage ~Paracelsus
While Bauer presented data on resveratrol with cautious enthusiasm, he was very careful to stress that the benefits and safety of resveratrol are not completely nailed down and the benefits of ingesting resveratrol in the form of commercial supplements such as wine or chocolate, are far from certain. His presentation was a great example of how scientists can present data in a well-balanced manner, acknowledging all the pros, cons and uncertainties, yet still engage an audience. I walked away from the evening enthusiastic about the notion that people want to look beyond the headlines, are willing to listen to the nuances and caveats of scientific research, and aren’t turned off by the fact that, “no, science does not have a simple answer, more research is needed”. There’s been a lot of talk about science communication and outreach this month over at Soapbox Science with the Reaching Out series, and, to me, science communication needs to become a dialog, not a monolog, and that starts with having engaging scientists and a receptive audience.
“The Science Behind the Hype: Resveratrol in Wine and Chocolate” was the second talk in a three-part series entitled The Locavore’s Dilemma. So, how does locavorism come into play? At the end of the evening, Nick Venditti of Frankly Wines gave us a quick rundown of local New York wines and a wine tasting lesson. Turns out that New York wines have higher levels of resveratrol than wines from other areas because the grapes are so stressed. So, the next time your California wine-drinking friends espouse the virtues of their wines, you can tell them that our stressed out grapes might make us live longer (maybe, more research is needed).
The next and last part of The Locavore’s Dilemma is “The Science of Local Food” at the South Street Seaport Museum. Tickets are sold out, but the event is part of the River to River festival, taking place from June 17 to July 15. Other events at the festival include “A Natural History of New York City” and “History and Archaeology Walking Tour”.