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Antioxidant-Rich Diets Fail to Reduce Heart Disease, Cancer

Wine bottles

(Alex Brown/Flickr)

13 May 2014. In a study of Italians age 65 and older, researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore find people with diets high in the antioxidant resveratrol — found in berries, dark chocolate, and red wine — develop cardiac problems and cancer, and live no longer than people who consume smaller amounts. A team led by Johns Hopkins ophthalmology professor Richard Semba, with members from Johns Hopkins, Spain, Italy, and the U.S., published their findings online yesterday in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine (paid subscription required).

Semba and colleagues sought to test claims that consumption of foods high in resveratrol, an organic antioxidant compound, offers health benefits such as anti-inflammatory effects and less blood-vessel stiffness. The claims are supported in part by tests with lab mice fed high-calorie diets also rich in resveratrol. Other studies also found lower rates of coronary heart disease in France despite high intakes of cholesterol and saturated fat — the so-called French Paradox — attributed to regular consumption of resveratrol in red wine.

The researchers sampled 783 adults age 65 and older from a continuing study of aging in the Chianti region of Tuscany in Italy — a region famous for its red wine — from 1998 to 2009. During the nine-year analysis period, about one-third of the sample (34%) died. Of those free of heart disease at the start of the period, about 27 percent died of heart disease. Of those free of cancer at the beginning, about 5 percent died from cancer.

In the study, the team collected urine samples, which were analyzed with mass spectrometry for metabolized remnants of resveratrol and indicators of inflammation. After accounting for age and gender, the researchers found no association in the sample between resveratrol and inflammation indicators, or death rates from any cause, including heart disease and cancer. People with high concentrations of resveratrol metabolites were about as likely to die from any cause as those with low concentrations.

Semba points out that foods containing resveratrol still may offer benefits, but that may be from other substances. “These are complex foods” says Semba in a university statement, “and all we really know from our study is that the benefits are probably not due to resveratrol.”

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