Drinking more than three glasses of red wine a week could cut the risk of colorectal cancer by almost 70 per cent, researchers told the 71st Annual Scientific Meeting of the American College of Gastroenterology in Las Vegas.
The potential benefits of the wine have been put down to the resveratrol content of the wine, and adds to an ever growing body of science linking the compound to a range of beneficial health effects, including brain and mental health, and cardiovascular health.
Colorectal cancer accounts for nine per cent of new cancer cases every year worldwide. The highest incidence rates are in the developed world, while Asia and Africa have the lowest incidence rates.
It remains one of the most curable cancers if diagnosis is made early.
The new research, by Joseph Anderson, and his colleagues from the Stony Brook University in New York looked at the drinking habits of 360 red and white drinkers with similar lifestyles and found that, while white wine consumption was not found to have any association with colorectal cancer incidence, regular red wine consumption was linked to a 68 per cent reduced risk of the cancer.
And the researchers told attendees that the active component in wine that may be behind the apparent benefits is most likely resveratrol, an anti-fungal chemical that occurs naturally under the skin of red wine grapes.
"The concentration is significantly higher in red wine than in white wine, because the skins are removed earlier during white-wine production, lessening the amount that is extracted," said Dr. Anderson.
However, grapes and wine are reported to contain more than 600 different components, including well-characterized antioxidant molecules. Therefore, excluding the possibility that several compounds work in synergy with small amounts of resveratrol to protect against colorectal cancer seems premature.
Indeed, while resveratrol has been the subject of various studies, particularly in relation to heart health, recent studies have reported brain protecting effects from grape juice or wine - an effect linked to a synergy between the various polyphenols present.
A recent study using Concord grape juice by researchers from Tuft's University reported that the combination of the polyphenols could decrease the effects of aging on the brain.
"It may be that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts," lead author Barbara Shukitt-Hale wrote in the journal Nutrition (Vol. 22, pp. 295-302).
The amount of resveratrol in a bottle of red wine can vary between types of grapes and growing seasons, and can vary between 0.2 and 5.8 milligrams per litre. But nearly all dark red wines - merlot, cabernet, zinfandel, shiraz and pinot noir - contain resveratrol.
The health implications of red wine consumption appear to be filtering through to the consumer. A report from analysts Euromonitor in 2004 predicted that still red wine will exhibit by far the fastest growth in both volume and value terms between 2002 and 2007.
Their study claims that red wine is forecast to record global value sales of $82bn (€61.5bn) in 2007, a rise of some 31 per cent from 2002.
However, experts are quick to warn that moderation is the key. A study from Harvard University last year reported that people who have three or more alcoholic drinks per day have a significantly higher risk of stroke. Lowest risk was observed for those who had one, or maybe two, drinks every other day.