The French, Their Wine, and Cancer. An Interview with Will Clower

The Telegraph of London asked me to comment on the recent kerfuffle on the French, their wine, and cancer. Below is the article. Please let me know your thoughts!


When Dr Will Clower moved from his native Alabama to work at the Institute of Cognitive Sciences in Lyon, France, one of the first things he noticed about the French was their advanced attitude towards wine. Sitting with his fellow scientists in the university’s lunchroom on his first day, he spotted a cask of red wine alongside the juice, water, and sandwiches, from which members could pour themselves endless refills.

“It struck me as odd – we [in the United States] see wine as an intoxicant, it’s the sum of its pharmacological properties, so why on Earth would you serve it over lunch? But as I watched, I never saw anyone going back to get more. For them it’s considered food, so of course you’re going to have it with your lunch – it’s a no-brainer.”

For Dr Clower, it was the perfect illustration of the “French paradox” – the idea that French people can drink as much vin as they like without ever seeming to suffer from the associated health problems. France’s love affair with wine reared its head last week when Sante Publique, the country’s public health body, prompted outrage after it advised adults to limit their wine intake to two glasses per day.

The advice was greeted with a resounding non from government ministers, one of whom – Agriculture Secretary Didier Guillaume – said: “Wine isn’t alcohol like the others.” Emmanuel Macron, the French president, has previously admitted to drinking wine with lunch and dinner every day: “There is a public health danger when young people get drunk on strong alcohol or beer, but not with wine,” he said.

Are they correct? Are the health impacts of wine any different to those of beer, spirits, and other alcohols? And, on this side of the Channel, can we afford to drink wine as much as the French without shaving years off our life?

Ask a British government official, and they’ll probably tell you that there is no such thing as a  ‘good’ level of any alcohol. All booze is harmful, they say, and that includes wine, the drink adored so much by middle-class midlifers.

Launching its new guidelines in 2016, which advised adults to drink no more than 14 units of alcohol each week, Public Health England said: “The benefits of moderate drinking for heart health are not as strong as previously thought … The risk of developing a range of illnesses increases with any amount you drink on a regular basis.”

Their advice is backed up by studies linking even a small intake of alcohol to an increased risk of various cancers, including liver cancer, breast cancer, and colon cancer.

But Dr Clower, who has written two books on the so-called ‘French Paradox’ since moving away from Lyon, isn’t so sure. If you look at it country by country, he says, the data does not show that higher wine consumption means higher rates of cancer. “There’s a closet full of caveats to that, but what it does say is that the relationship between wine consumption and cancer is overly simplistic and doesn’t tell the whole picture,” he says.

He says that one-off studies can only tell us so much about the health impacts of wine – it’s far more useful to look at individual countries that are doing it well and try to emulate them. “It’s frustrating, [a study comes out saying], ‘Drink wine because science shows it’ll make you live ten years longer’. And then a month later, ‘Don’t drink because it’s going to kill you’. There are cultural habits and cultural behaviours, and if those behaviours lead to lower weight, longer lives, healthier bodies, then the reason why is truly academic.

“The French live longer, they don’t have the cancers that [other Western countries] do, they don’t have the heart disease we do, they don’t have the diabetes that we do. Whatever they’re doing, they should keep doing it because it’s working for them, and the reasons will be revealed over time.”

In words that will come as even more of a delight to vino-lovers, he also thinks that wine can indeed be good for the heart, due to their high levels of antioxidants.

This is a view shared by Toral Shah, a nutritional scientist and chef who specialises in cancer prevention after overcoming the disease in her twenties. She says there has been “really mixed research” into the impacts of wine on cardiovascular (heart) disease, but thinks that the high levels of antioxidants and polyphenols found in wine (particularly red wine) help our heart and immune system.

“If you look at people over a long period of time, the people that have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease are the people that drink one glass of wine a day,” she says. “There’s a U-shaped curve: drinking one, maximum two glasses of red wine, three of four times a week, can be beneficial to longevity. The French haven’t got it wrong: they’re normally drinking wine rather than hard alcoholic cocktails.”

What’s more, the French drink their wine much more socially than the British, she says, usually chatting to their friends and family over a meal. “The [French] social health is much better, they’re sitting with more people, they’re interacting with more people. In France they still have a proper lunch break, they sit down away from their desk, eat something and drink wine.

“It’s not like us [in Britain], where we’re not really eating well, we’re necking a load of alcohol when we go out and not having any food.”

‘Social health’ has now become such an accepted part of medicine, she says, that it is listed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) under its definition of health: “It impacts our health so much more than we realised ever before, and it’s only now that we have a broken social network in the Western world that we’re really starting to see the impact. It’s only a product probably of the last 30 or 40 years.”

Before you run to your local wine merchant to set up a daily order of Pinot Noir, however, Shah also recommends limiting yourself to one glass a day, with some alcohol-free days each week.

This makes Emmanuel Macron, who claims to drink a glass with lunch and dinner every day, something of a bad example. “It’s a bit too much”, she says of the French president’s habits. “He’s 41, he looks in shape for his age, but he needs to consider that your metabolism changes a lot at that age. Maybe he should have a few days [each week] where he doesn’t drink alcohol – that’s a recommendation from the WHO.”