Check, Please!

Is Natural Wine Better For You?

Aside from a unique flavor, this wine doesn’t differ much.

Originally Published: 
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Check, Please!

Thus far, humans haven’t succeeded in finding a healthy spin on imbibing. Sadly, any health benefits of red wine are outweighed by the negative effects of alcohol on the human body. Some lagers may nourish the gut microbiome — except alcohol pummels those same microbes.

Yet another libation holds an iffy status as quasi-healthy booze: Natural wine, perhaps for its name alone, may well be the kale of alcoholic beverages. Humans have concocted natural wine for at least 6,000 years, eventually distilling the process into commercial winemaking. Naturally, if you will, the question of whether one method is superior arises.

Anna Katharine Mansfield, associate professor of enology (the study of wine) at Cornell AgriTech, a center for food and agricultural research at Cornell University, gives the nitty-gritty of this rustic-chic beverage.

What is natural wine?

This drink lacks a clear definition, legal or otherwise. Mansfield notes that natural wine’s counterpart isn’t unnatural wine, but rather conventional wine.

Typically, a natural wine has been produced with little intervention from the maker, hence why “low intervention” is often a descriptor within wine circles, says Mansfield. Winemaking interventions have been refined over decades to minimize spoilage. Some of these interventions may include the use of herbicides or pesticides on grapes, and the employment of commercial yeast to better control fermentation. Instead, natural wineries use native yeast dwelling in the vineyard or on the grape skin itself.

As every wine has a flavor profile, some people have called natural wine “funky,” according to the publication, Wine Folly. Mansfield says this label may also signal other traits that are perceived as flaws in traditional winemaking, such as cloudiness, microbiological fizziness, and acetic acid aromas.

Natural wine usually lacks added sulfites or sulfur compounds that prevent spoilage and microbial growth. While this trait distinguishes natural wine, it doesn’t necessarily make it superior.

Are sulfites bad for you?

Yeast naturally produces sulfites during fermentation, and conventional winemakers will top off a bottle with more as a preservative. They’re also present in foods from baked goods and deli meat to canned produce and vinegar. Still, natural wine champions may point to this feature as proof of the beverage’s superiority. Sulfites also get the blame for adverse reactions like hangovers.

Mansfield is familiar with sulfite skeptics. “I can already hear consumers saying, ‘But what about the sulfites?!?’” she writes to Inverse. She points instead to histamines, another chemical in wine, as the likely culprit for headaches and nausea. Histamines also manifest in the body, which we battle with anti-histamines around allergy season.

Paradoxically, Mansfield notes that one way in which winemakers skirt adding sulfites is by using yeast strains that naturally produce higher amounts of the compound.

Is natural wine better for you?

“The biggest misconception is that ‘natural’ means something positive or healthy,” Mansfield writes to Inverse.

While natural and conventional wine may differ in process and taste, they’re alike in that they both contain alcohol, the least healthy part of any wine, “which is also what makes wine, wine,” Mansfield writes. While many people drink to their health, it’s difficult to drink for your health — at least according to the best research to date. (Personal lore from centenarians is another story.)

Most drinkers likely don’t drink because alcohol is good for their physiological health, which Mansfield points out is toxic to us. “That’s why we drink alcoholic beverages — we enjoy the sensation that being mildly poisoned brings.”

Remember — always mildly poison yourself responsibly!

CHECK, PLEASE is an Inverse series that uses biology, chemistry, and physics to debunk the biggest food myths and assumptions.

Now read this: Are Eggs Healthy for You? A Chicken Expert Weighs In

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