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Explain Like I'm Five: Antioxidants!

Explain Like I'm Five: Antioxidants!

When I hear about the "health benefits of wine," there are a lot of words that get thrown around that just make me start nodding, glassy-eyed, pretending to know what they mean. Sure, "antioxidant" means something goes... against... oxidants? And that's good?

I felt like I should investigate all these science-y terms so I can actually understand that sort of conversation--and maybe even add to it in a way that doesn't just parrot general health claims. Let's start with a couple widely-discussed elements of wine: antioxidants and polyphenols. We're going to go down a rabbit-hole for a second, so please bear with me.

Antioxidants, per Helmut Seis's 1997 article "Oxidative Stress: Oxidants and Antioxidants" in Experimental Physiology, are "molecules that inhibit the oxdation of other molecules."

Oxdation, in turn, is a chemical reaction that transfers single electrons or hydrogen atoms from one compound (the reducing agent) to another (the oxidizing agent, or oxidant). They are called "oxidants" because their atomic makeup always contains oxygen, which in its natural state has two "open slots" for electrons. This theft of electrons can create free radicals.

Free radicals are molecular compounds that have unbalanced electron pairs (remember in chemistry how two atoms like to share at least two electrons?) and are therefore highly reactive to surrounding compounds. They can cause chain reactions when they start interacting with neighboring molecules, which is damaging or even fatal to cells if not kept in check.

Antioxidants stop these chain reactions by pairing with the open electron bond (thereby ending the chain).

Oxidation and antioxidation are two of the many delicate processes that happen in the human body. They are kept in balance mainly through diet, and both are important to maintain. For example, nitric oxide and superoxide anions are vital oxidants; nitric oxide is a vasodilator that helps regulate blood pressure, and superoxide is deployed by the immune system to kill invasive microorganisms. Antioxidants such as vitamins A, C, and E are also necessary for disease prevention; by ending the chain reactions of certain free radicals and preventing oxidative stress, which refers to an overabundance of free radicals running around our bodies unchecked. Oxidative stress is linked to cancer (uncontrolled growth of certain cell types), so it's something we would all like to avoid.

Still with me so far? Antioxidants stop the growth of free radicals, which can damage cells through chemical bonds in chain reaction. Antioxidants are necessary to maintain health, and are easily introduced to the body via food and drink.

Hey! Wine is a drink. Wine contains antioxidants. Sounds like a good option for preventing oxidative stress!

Wine contains polyphenolic antioxidants, most notably tannic acid. And with that statement, it's time for another (shorter, I promise) rabbit hole.

Polyphenols are molecular chains of phenols, which are made of hydrogen-oxygen pairs bonded to an "aromatic hydrocarbon," a chain of carbon and hydrogen atoms with a characteristically sweet smell. Polyphenols are a category of antioxidants found mainly in organic matter, especially fruits and vegetables.

Grapes, and most particularly red grapes, contain tannic acid. Tannic acid is a polyphenol that works as an antioxidant against free radicals in low-density lipoprotein, also known as the bad kind of cholesterol that blocks blood vessels. Since tannins are located in the seeds, stems, and skins of grapes, red wine has a higher level of tannic acid than white wine--the contact with the skins that allows the unfermented juice to take on a red hue also leeches the tannin from the solid matter. This higher concentration of tannin in red wine makes it more beneficial when we are trying to maintain cardiovascular health.

Despite all the science and vocabulary that gets thrown around about the health benefits of wine, it's a pretty simple concept to understand. Red wine contains tannins, which stop cancer.

Okay, maybe that's oversimplifying a little too much. But I feel better about my ability to discuss anti-oxidants and polyphenols now, so I think I'll pour myself a glass of wine to celebrate!

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