For years now, we've been hearing about the health benefits of red wine. People talk about its anti-aging, longevity-enhancing qualities, which were allegedly concentrated in its key ingredient, "resveratrol." There's no telling how many dollars' worth of supplements (and additional bottles of wine) were purchased and consumed for this reason. So, bad news, everyone: very recent and reputable research on the red wine derivative as it is actually consumed in food indicates that resveratrol "does not influence inflammation, cancer or longevity." Bummer.
A team of researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine used data collected between 1998 and 2009 from almost 800 men and women over the age of 65 who lived in the Chianti region of Italy. As Italians, these subjects routinely ate a diet rich in resveratrol throughout their lives. The team was able to use mass spectrometry to look for evidence of resveratrol in the subjects' urine.
After nine years, the observations didn't look promising. Many of the subjects had developed new cardiovascular disease or new cancer, and many had died, but "resveratrol concentration was not linked with inflammatory markers, cardiovascular disease or cancer rates." This remained the case even after the researchers controlled for age and gender. Disappointingly, the subjects with the highest levels of resveratrol in their systems were no less likely to have died than those who had no systemic resveratrol detected at all.
Why the conflicting findings as compared to previous resveratrol studies? This research looked at a population consuming resveratrol in the context of their normal lives over many years, whereas other studies have a much shorter time span and may be conducted on animals or atypical humans. In a laboratory setting, the researchers have control over more factors, but they may also be focusing too narrowly on a minor property of substances like resveratrol that don't ultimately matter much in the real world. For a more in-depth explanation, try this thoughtful article which discusses the complications of health reporting as viewed within the context of resveratrol.
So, although resveratrol's specific health benefits remain thoroughly in doubt, that doesn't necessarily mean that wine is bad for you. For instance, there is some evidence that even heavy drinkers are healthier than non-drinkers (but it may be correlational). You may want to stop buying expensive resveratrol supplements for the time being, though – it's quite possibly just a fancy way to wash your cash down the drain, without even getting a buzz in the process.