Log In / Join Now

Health Watch: NIH Shuts Down $110 Million Study on Alcohol and Health

Plus, how does that wine make you feel? Two studies explore wine's emotional and physical impact
Photo by: James Worrell
Large-scale studies on wine's possible health benefits are difficult to finance.

Lexi Williams, Kamila Knaudt
Posted: June 29, 2018

A multinational, multimillion-dollar study on the health benefits of moderate drinking is ending prematurely. On June 15, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced that it is pulling the plug on funding for the Moderate Alcohol and Cardiovascular Health (MACH15) trial, which was intended to observe the effects of having one alcoholic beverage per day on the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

The study was controversial from the start. More than half of its roughly $100 million budget came from private donations from major players in the alcohol industry, including Anheuser-Busch InBev, Diageo, Carlsberg Breweries, Heineken and Pernod Ricard. Though many were skeptical of the industry's financial involvement, representatives from the NIH and its National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) had previously stated that there would not be a risk of bias, chiefly because the money was secured by the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH), a separate entity that raises funds for the NIH to prevent any outside influence.

But the NIH recently announced that policy violations regarding fundraising had compromised the study's integrity. An investigation by an NIH advisory committee revealed "early and frequent" interaction between alcohol industry representatives and members of the research team (before the FNIH became involved), which appeared to "intentionally bias the framing of the scientific premise in the direction of demonstrating a beneficial health effect of moderate alcohol consumption." The report included emails from NIAAA staffers as evidence.

"NIH has strong policies that detail the standards of conduct for NIH employees, including prohibiting the solicitation of gifts and promoting fairness in grant competitions. We take very seriously any violations of these standards," said NIH director Francis Collins in a press release.

There were also questions about the soundness of the study's design. The plan was to recruit 7,800 participants ages 50 and older who have an above-average risk for either cardiovascular disease or diabetes. Half of the participants would have one drink every day; the other half would not drink at all. Some independent reviews of the trial's plan pointed out that the study would not be able to address other important health effects of alcohol, such as cancer. Therefore, the trial might have shown alcohol's benefits while missing significant harms.

Despite these issues raised, Kenneth Mukamal, the study's lead author, remains firm in the belief that the study was ethical and sound. "As investigators, we stand fully and forcefully behind the scientific integrity of the MACH15 trial protocol and team," he said via email, insisting that private sponsors did not provide any input on the study design, and that the study's staff had no contact with the sponsors since the trial began.

He also mentioned that, as with all clinical trials, the study could not address every health concern, and emphasized that the trial was "appropriately powered to detect its primary and secondary endpoints of total mortality, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes."

There is a dearth of well-designed, large-scale clinical studies to help us better understand the health effects of moderate drinking. The challenge is that such studies are expensive, and finding funding for research on alcohol consumption is far more difficult than many other medical topics.—L.W.

Study: Age and Sex Affect Emotional Responses to Wine

To wine lovers, drinking a glass of vino often elicits more than just a "like" or "dislike" response; there's an emotional component to it as well. A study published in the June 2018 edition of the journal Food Quality and Preference conducted tests to explore this further.

Researchers from Spain's Universidad Politécnica de Madrid and the University of the Basque Country's Euskampus Fundazioa set up a blind tasting of six Spanish wines and had 208 participants (roughly half male and half female) record their emotional responses to each. After tasting each wine, participants were asked about the acceptability of the wine (ranked on a 9-point scale) and then about the emotions it elicited. Twenty-seven emotion-related terms were rated on line scales, with "very low" at one end and "very high" at the other; participants marked the place on the lines to indicate how intensely each wine made them feel each emotion.

Overall, men gave higher emotional scores than women, rating terms such as "bored," "calm," "good natured," "secure" and "understanding" significantly higher than their counterparts did. Women, on the other hand, generally gave lower scores to each emotional term, but reported greater differences in emotional responses to each of the wines they tried. Notably, though, women gave significantly higher scores for the term "joyful" when consuming white wines, and lower scores for the word when consuming red wines.

The researchers also looked at age. Participants were classified into three age groups: "Young adults" (ages 18 to 35) made up 45 percent of the group; "middle-aged adults" (ages 36 to 55) were 29 percent of the group; and "older adults" (older than 55) were the remaining 26 percent.

In general, the oldest age group gave significantly higher scores for the emotional terms, especially the positive ones, such as "active," "enthusiastic," "pleasant" and "curious." More negative terms, such as "guilty" and "worried" were also rated more highly by both the older and middle-aged groups. According to the study's text, this could be linked to an increase in health concerns as people age.

The study wasn't necessarily intended to inform consumers about wine's effects on their emotional health; it was meant to help the wine industry learn more about consumers. But it might make you think the next time you take a sip: How does this make me feel?—L.W.

What Does Alcohol Have to Do with Premenstrual Syndrome?

Alcohol often has different health effects on women than men. A recent meta-analysis from Spain's University of Santiago de Compostela adds to this body of research by looking at the relationship between drinking and premenstrual syndrome (PMS).

PMS affects women both physically and emotionally before their menstrual period, according to the study's text, and impacts up to 40 percent of women in the United States. Symptoms and severity vary greatly from one woman to another, but it is estimated that women diagnosed with PMS experience symptoms a total of 3,000 days during their reproductive lives.

The study, published April 16 in the BMJ Open, analyzed data of 19 PMS-related studies from eight different countries and involving more than 47,000 participants, to observe the occurrences of PMS among women who consumed alcohol. The researchers found that intake of alcohol was associated with a 45 percent increase in the risk of having PMS, and that heavy drinking—categorized in this study as an average of one drink or more per day—yielded a larger increase in the risk, at 79 percent.

It is important to understand that this study indicates correlation, not causation. In other words, we don't know if alcohol actually plays a role in bringing on PMS, or if women with PMS are merely more likely to drink—perhaps as a way to cope with their symptoms.

Noting the widespread nature of the disease, the study's text describes the need for future research on this topic, and the researchers explain that though there is evidence that drinking has some type of correlation to PMS, there are plenty of other factors that come into play.

"Alcohol is only one of the factors that may increase the risk of PMS. There are many other factors," Dr. Bahi Takkouche, one of the researchers on the study, told Wine Spectator via email. "We are now assessing the role of tobacco smoking and psychological factors, such as stress, in the occurrence of PMS."

As with most alcohol-and-health topics, the relationship between drinking and PMS is clearly hard to define and will require much more investigation before scientists can reach any conclusions.—K.K.


Want to learn more about how wine can be part of a healthy lifestyle? Sign up for Wine Spectator's free Wine & Healthy Living e-mail newsletter and get the latest health news, feel-good recipes, wellness tips and more delivered straight to your inbox every other week!

Would you like to comment? Want to join or start a discussion?

Become a WineSpectator.com member and you can!
To protect the quality of our conversations, only members may submit comments. Member benefits include access to more than 315,000 reviews in our Wine Ratings Search; a first look at ratings in our Insider, Advance and Tasting Highlights; Value Wines; the Personal Wine List/My Cellar tool, hundreds of wine-friendly recipes and more.

WineRatings+ app: Download now for 340,000+ ratings.