US scientists have identified a new compound in red wine which could be just as important as the antioxidant resveratrol, in fighting cholesterol, they claim.
Speaking at the American Chemical Society meeting in New York this week, researchers at the university of California, Davis, said they have found saponins, the glucose-based plant compounds increasingly under the spotlight for possible health benefits, in wine for the first time.
Andrew Waterhouse, professor of Oenology, said saponins could be just as important as resveratrol, thought to be responsible for the so-called French Paradox - the association between red wine and decreased heart disease.
"Saponins are a hot new food ingredient. People are just starting to pay attention to it," said Waterhouse who led the study. "No one ever thought to look for it in wine," he added.
The compounds are believed to come from the waxy skin of grapes, which dissolve into the wine during its fermentation process. To better understand their distribution in wine, Waterhouse conducted a preliminary study of six varieties of California wines - four red and two white - and compared them on the basis of their saponin content.
"Average dietary saponin intake has been estimated at 15mg, while one glass of red has a total saponin concentration of about half that, making red wine a significant dietary source," said the researcher.
In general, Waterhouse found that red wine contains significantly higher saponin levels than white - about three to ten times as much. Among the red wines tested, red Zinfandel contained the highest levels. Syrah had the second highest, followed by Pinot noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, which had about the same amount. The white varieties tested, Sauvignon blanc and Chardonnay, contained much less.
Although Merlot was not analysed in this study, Waterhouse believes it contains significant amounts of saponins at levels comparable to the other red wines.
The study also seems to show a positive correlation between alcohol content and saponin levels. The red Zinfandel tested, which contained the highest level of saponins among all the wines tested, also had the highest level of alcohol, at 16 per cent. "We think that alcohol may make the saponins more soluble in wine, but follow-up studies are needed,"added Waterhouse.
According to the scientist, red wines contain about the same amount of saponin as they do resveratrol. But while resveratrol is thought to block cholesterol oxidation by its antioxidant action, saponins are believed to work by binding to and preventing the absorption of cholesterol.
Other foods containing significant amounts of saponins include olive oil and soybeans. The compounds are even more abundant in desert plants such as the Yucca and Quillaja. For the most part, saponins make up the waxy coating of these plants, where they function primarily for protection.