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Dangerous Wine or Dangerous Reporting?

I look up to journalists. I really do. They actually get paid for doing what I play at here every day, and most of them are way better at it than I am. But every once in a while someone publishes a story that makes me wonder how we all manage to avoid riding journalists out of town on a rail.

Witness the headlines that are rapidly rocketing their way across the internet: Heavy Metals Found in Wine, Metals in wine may be health danger, and Euro wines carrying potentially dangerous levels of heavy metals.

If this is really true, then most of the people I know are going to start dropping dead any day now. If it is not true, then this is some of the most irresponsible, flagrantly fear-mongering journalism I have seen in a long time.

I have every reason to believe it is the latter.

First, an overview of the story: scientists at Kingston University in London have done some analysis (here's their paper for those inclined to read it) that seems to suggest that wines are much higher in various heavy metals than suspected, and that those levels, according to these researchers, exceed safety thresholds to the point of being a health concern.

But there is more to the story than this. This story originated at the pinnacle of respectable journalism that is WebMD (their top topics this week include penis enlargement). Stamped with the approval of a reviewing doctor, this story is meant to reek of credibility. It certainly reeks, but of something else entirely.

Readers don't find out until the second page of the story that the data these scientists are analyzing isn't their own and it wasn't collected with the purpose of making evaluations about the health implications of trace elements in wine.

The amounts of metals found in these wines are described as being in some cases 300 times those found in fish, but the reporter neglects to mention the fact that the metals in the wine (vanadium, copper, manganese, zinc, nickel, chromium, and lead) are different than those in fish (mainly mercury), and therefore probably have wildly different levels of danger (last time I checked it takes a lot more copper to screw you up than it does mercury).

Throughout the piece the reporter uses the word "contaminate" to describe the presence of the metals in the wine, yet most of those metals are found in nearly everything we eat that comes from a plant and several are found in pretty much every multi-vitamin on the face of the planet.

One of the other highly suspect components of this research, which is not addressed at all by the reporter has to do with the fact that somehow only wines from Italy, Brazil and Argentina have safe levels of metal, meaning they have between 30 and 300 times less of these metals in them than the other wines.

Now I'm not a winemaker or a wine scientist, but other than some basic filtration (which I'm not even sure is capable of removing metals such as these), I'm not aware of any winemaking step or process that specifically removes heavy metals from wine. And as far as I know, grape vines grow in the many of the same types of soil and climate all over the world, and winemaking equipment and processes, while varying from winery to winery, are basically the same around the world in the broadest sence. So how is it exactly that some country's wines are so "contaminated" while others aren't? The fact that this contamination is consistent by country, too, seems utterly preposterous -- as if there's some consistent problem in the entire frigging country?

Take a quick read of the actual research paper, and it's easy to see that the researchers did no testing of wine on their own. Rather, they're using data from a myriad of other studies whose testing methodologies, even they acknowledge, vary widely.

I'll stop my outrage there. Most likely, this is a flawed research study that is being wrongly interpreted by a stupid journalist, and now wine drinkers all over the world are going to be worried that along with their resveratrol, they're getting a Parkinson's inducing dose of heavy metals.

If I had to choose between entrusting my life and health to a glass of good red wine or a hack journalist, I know which one I would choose.

Comments (23)

Benito wrote:
10.30.08 at 2:10 AM

I've always been amused at folks who freak out about various elements in a beverage or food product yet drink mineral water with gusto.

San Pellegrino, for instance, contains the following:
calcium, chlorine, fluorine, lithium, magnesium, nitrogen, potassium, silicon, sodium, and strontium

Strontium is heavier than all of the "wine metals" except for lead, and certain lithium ions are used in psychiatric drugs. If we're going to have to label wine with these traces, then mineral water will need similar labels and apples will have to be sold with cyanide warnings.

10.30.08 at 4:34 AM

Maddening for sure Alder but it too will soon be forgotten like most sensationalist journalism. Noticed in the "research" document that breast milk is also implicated. It is surprising that some anti breast feeding journalist has not been all over that one. Let us resolve to have an extra glass of red wine tonight, preferably an unfiltered red and crank up some heavy metal music.

Iris wrote:
10.30.08 at 4:44 AM

Perhaps an other attempt of the anti-alcohol-lobby to ban good wine from our tables:-)?

Today is action-day in France against other stupid projects, you already mentioned in your blog.You can see on many French wineblogs, what it would look like, if the mighty lobbies would win.

Amy wrote about it here.

Alfonso wrote:
10.30.08 at 5:57 AM

Cool. First we are one step removed from bootleggers, then we are evil three-tier anti-freemarkit-isti's and now we are poison pimps.
I love my job!

10.30.08 at 6:38 AM

Good questions raised.

I checked it out from a South African wine point of view here: http://capeinfo.com/wine/?p=176

Rob Bralow wrote:
10.30.08 at 8:38 AM

I very much appreciate you calling them out on this research. I saw that headline this morning on the numerous news sources I receive daily and it was pretty shocking. I definitely can't believe that such a study could be taken seriously after the hundreds of studies saying that this same wine is quite good for you.

Iris wrote:
10.30.08 at 10:09 AM

studies about metal traces in wines (and fruit juices) exist already for a very long time (I've found German studies going back to 1993 just by googeling 2 minutes)- some have to do with materials used in the winery (for pumps and hoses), some may come from the vineyard (like copper...), all books about wine making tread how to "heal" problems coming from too much metal in wines.

Bentonit and other filtering materials are also hold for responsible, it's really nothing new. Some are probably natural and some are even necessary for our metabolism...

Like for other residues, the real question will be: how to localize the origin, see, whether there exist methods, to avoid or minimize them, and to analyze, whether, which and in which concentration they are dangerous for our organism.

I presume, that by looking closely enough, we will find them in 90% of our aliments - so bringing out the "scoop" (and just two days after talking about iron in Parkinson brains...) is really just another bit of sensational journalism - and you said everything, one should say about that, Alder.

Bill Daley wrote:
10.30.08 at 1:12 PM

I am still reading all these articles so I'm reserving judgement, but - and this is an important but - please remember most hedes are written by an editor or copy editor...not the poor reporter. I think your comments are important and will make sure our health writer sees them as well. All the best. Sorry to have missed you in Santa Rosa.

Morton Leslie wrote:
10.30.08 at 2:11 PM

The lead investigator is a student and it does appear that she analyzed just one wine. I guess running more than one sample thru mass spec would have been too much work for today's college student. I was confused by the article which went on to rank country of origin...which was not part of this students work. It appears that separately this reporter is referring work done by a number of unrelated investigators in a number of countries. If jumping to conclusions were exercise, this reporting would qualify as a marathon.

If this paper was, in fact, an investigation of wines from specific regions, soils, and climates this might be interesting. But this seems to be a student project, nothing more.

Doug wrote:
10.30.08 at 2:18 PM

You've got the wrong research study. You linked to an older study that looked at one red wine. The follow-up study, that looked at additional wines, is at http://www.journal.chemistrycentral.com/content/2/1/22

Alder wrote:
10.30.08 at 2:29 PM


Thanks for the correction. I continue to be highly skeptical of the study, if only because the authors didn't actually test any of these wines themselves and they outright acknowledge that the testing methodologies used by the studies that they used for their data vary considerably.

Dor wrote:
10.30.08 at 7:54 PM

I read the corrected report and really there does not seem to be enough detail to draw such firm conclusions .. (would be interested to see something detailed on the affects of herbicide use though)


10.30.08 at 9:18 PM


Organic and Biodynamic permit the use of copper sulphate in the vineyard, with little or no restrictions ( sustainable certifying agencies such as LIVE Inc here in Oregon restricts its use too 3 pounds per acre ). Another frequently used vineyard material, Rock Phospate, can contain large amounts of cadmium. So there are numerous sources in the vineyard.
In the winery Copper is often used to treat problems with reduction ( sulfides ). Brass fittings, still used often in Europe, could be another source of heavy metals in wine.
As far as removing heavey metals; if I use copper I always add lees to the wine after words to reduce copper left in solution. I have not used them but there are also filter pads that are imbedded with cyanide that will bind copper. I have heard several winemakers say they have had good results with them in terms of reducing soluble copper and improving wines that have been treated 'heavily' with copper.
It seems writers in the UK are trying to scare the public out of drinking wine ( recall the revelation that people add yeast to wine ). Perhaps the beer industry is in the tank.

Alder wrote:
10.30.08 at 9:25 PM


I think you've hit the nail on the head. It's a vast brewing conspiracy.

1WineDude wrote:
10.31.08 at 9:33 AM

I've always wanted to say "Dude, I'm totally METAL!"

And now I can! Hooray!

Dylan wrote:
10.31.08 at 10:18 AM

This is almost as spooky as the time they started throwing wood chips in the wine. I agree, it's pure sensationalism-sadly, I've felt that way about news since I was but a lad. It seems Colbert and Stewart are my only sanctuary against the tactics used to keep people watching the news.

Alan Kropf wrote:
10.31.08 at 2:14 PM

Great post and insights. We posted about this too, though I thought this story was so terrifying that we waited to post it as part of our Halloween theme. Its crazy how this story tries so hard to be credible while acting like a "scoop", I think that is irresponsible for sure, also, it is like the article is having a debate with itself going back and forth, while the bombastic headline chooses to highlight the negative and hazardous aspect of the story. http://www.mutineermagazine.com/blog/2008/10/wine-metals-cancer-terrifying-headline/

Pam wrote:
11.03.08 at 7:42 AM

As a British ex-pat(in Florida)I never cease to be amazed at the deluge of journalistic and/or "junk science" nonsense & claptrap that comes across the Atlantic nowadays - the heavy metals contamination in wines theory being only one of so very many, I long ago lost count. I agree that we should continue to sip on whatever takes our fancy & load up on optional heavy metal via the music industry.......

tom farella wrote:
11.03.08 at 9:52 AM

This is a little scary considering there are some neo-prohibition types lurking -- and getting active -- in Europe. I would say it's a genuine concern (these "scientists," NOT the wine itself).

Tish wrote:
11.04.08 at 8:04 AM

Kudos to Mutineer for covering this topic as well. I just checeked winespec.com and saw nothing. I suspect they are still fuzzy-headed from all the 15% alcohol Cabernets that they blessed for bpouring at the NYC Experience

Mark Slater wrote:
11.06.08 at 9:18 PM

Psssst! You heard it here first. The next scandal brewing is in Bordeaux- alarming levels of carbon monoxide and other automobile pollutants found in Haut Brion and surrounding vineyards!

JD in Napa wrote:
11.07.08 at 10:18 AM

A little late to the party, but sometimes stories like these need to churn a bit. Tish notes that there was nothing on Wine Spectator; apparently that was because they were taking the time to let the medical community weigh in before putting out an article, which they posted on 11/5. Among other things, the article cites information from an epidemiologist that puts the "research" findings in a less than favorable light. Goes to show you that 1) all science isn't created equal, and 2) simply parroting a story, as many outlets did, isn't always in the best interest of the readership. Gives weight to Alder's suggestion of "dangerous reporting". Best to let the science reporters write about the papers found in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

Andrew Waterhouse wrote:
11.09.08 at 11:24 PM

In a recent article "Determination of metal ion content of beverages and estimation of target hazard quotients: a comparative study" by Hague et al, Chemistry Central Journal, Vol 2, p 13, the authors raise an alert that red wine contains hazardous levels of a number of trace minerals, and raise particular concern for the level of vanadium and managanese. This has resulted in a flurry of interest on the web and in the European and Australia press.

My analysis of their report suggests that the amount of these minerals they use to trigger concern may be too small, perhaps by as much as 10 or more. They used the following oral reference doses as the values to trigger a hazard: 1 ug/kg/day for vanadium and 1.4 ug/kg/day for manganese. The units are microgram per kilogram body weight per day. Accepting their body weight reference values of 83 kg for men and 70 kg for women, this translates into 83 ug/day (men) and 70 ug/day (women) for vanadium, and 116 ug/day (men) and 98 ug/day (women) for manganese, as the daily consumption levels that would trigger a hazard quotient.

The sources for their "oral reference doses" were citations #2 and #13 in their paper:

Wang X, Sato T, Xing B, Tao S: Health risks of heavy metals to
the general public in Tianjin, China via consumption of vegetables
and fish. Sci Total Environ 2005, 350:28-37.
Rui YK, Yu QQ, Jin YH, Guo J, Luo YB: Application of ICP-MS to
the detection of forty elements in wine. Guang Pu Xue Yu Guang
Pu Fen Xi 2007, 27:1015-1017. Article in Chinese

The former does not address Vanadium or Manganese and I cannot get a copy of the latter, so I cannot verify the reference values from these sources.

However, I was able to find a USDA report that refers to the National Academy of Sciences publication, Dietary Reference Intakes: The Essential Guide to Nutrient Requirements, 2006. In the USDA report, the tolerable upper intake level (UL) for vanadium is 1800 ug/day and manganese is 11000 ug/day.

These values are approximately 20 and 100 times higher than the values used by Hague et al for triggering a hazard. More to the point, the amount of vanadium they found in the wine averaged 140 ug/L or 35 ug/glass (they assumed one 250 mL glass per day), so the daily intake of vanadium they would estimate from wine would be only 1/50th of the amount the National Academy suggests could be a problem. A similar calculation for manganese shows that wine would contribute only 1/100th of the amount that would raise a concern.

The same trigger values were used in a later report suggesting a large number of European wines might be hazardous, Heavy metal ions in wines: meta-analysis of target hazard quotients reveal health risks. Chemistry Central Journal 2008, 2:22.

Thus, while I cannot find their source for the low amounts of vanadium and manganese that could be a health concern, I would be willing to stand by the National Academy of Sciences estimates for safe levels of these trace minerals. And, assuming their analysis of the levels of these minerals in wine is correct, it would appear that their claim that "a very high THQ value suggesting potential hazardous exposure" for red wine consumption is erroneous.

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