The winner of this year's Geoffrey Roberts Award unveiled a new twist on the French Paradox last night.
Roger Corder, professor of experimental therapeutics at the William Harvey Research Institute in London, was intrigued by statistics that show that Sardinians have twice as high a
chance of living to a hundred or beyond than the average, a figure that rises to three times the average in the province of Nuoro in the east of the island.
‘You can’t put their longevity down to the Mediterranean diet,’ Corder said in London last night, ‘as Sardinians who live in this largely mountainous province eat mainly meat and cheese.’
The French Paradox is a term coined in the 1990s, when researchers realised that the French, whose diet is high in saturated fats – normally associated with heart disease – had a lower incidence of cardiac disease than the rest of the Western world.
Corder has been investigating the links between the levels of polyphenols in red wines and the build-up of plaque in arteries for some time, and his research indicates that the molecules inhibit the production of a hormone, endothelin, that contributes to the creation of atherosclerotic lesions. He spent the £3,000 bursary from the award on a trip to Sardinia, where he collected samples of the local wine in order to investigate its chemical composition.
A graph plotting the polyphenol content of a selection of wines seems to indicate that young Sardinian wines, particularly those grown at higher altitudes and produced using traditional winemaking techniques, provide the greatest protection against coronary disease. Wines from Mendoza, in Argentina, are also at the high end of the scale, while those grown on the Australian plains are at the low end.
‘The winemaking process may alter the polyphenol levels,’ Corder said, ‘but if these results prove consistent it may prove that grapes grown at high altitudes have evolved to contain more of the chemical as a protective mechanism against high UV exposure.’
As a result of his discoveries, he believes that the chemical composition of Sardinian reds goes a long way towards explaining the high life expectancy on the island.
‘If polyphenol levels were put on labels it would alter the way we buy our wine,’ he said.
The annual Geoffrey Roberts Award is a £3000 (€4,750) international travel bursary given to a potential achiever in the worlds of food, drink or hospitality.
Written by Natasha Hughes15 October 2002