As the grapes are harvested in Europe’s vineyards, scientists are looking at ways of turning the toxic waste left from wine-making into super-health-giving compounds. And to do it, they are applying 21st century know-how to one of the oldest processes known to man. As Shakespeare wrote in Othello: “Good wine is a good familiar creature if it be well-used.”

If there’s one thing that has proved an enduring inspiration through the ages it’s wine. It has been central to the ancient Greeks and Romans; in the Bible; right up to present day as a bringer of merriment and indeed health.

During the harvest in the Catalonian vineyards, there’s even an echo of Shakespeare, who wrote in Othello: “Good wine is a good familiar creature if it be well-used: exclaim no more against it.”

Chari Ruiz, agricultural worker: “I think that everything is good in moderation. It’s OK to drink a glass of wine per day, but a litre a day won’t do you good. They say that grape skin helps to prevent cancer, especially the black ones – that’s what they say”.

Xavier Vidal, tractor driver: ”My father had a stroke, and the doctor recommended him to drink red wine. It’s good for your health, for the blood.”

Research has already linked red-wine’s health-giving properties to the antioxidants it contains.

They help to prevent certain illnesses by destroying the free-radicals which cause chemical damage to cells.

That appears to be one of the reasons that wine-drinking countries have such striking low rates of cardiovascular disease.

Xavier Rubires, Enologist: “Here in these barrels we keep all the red wine – the factor behind the so-called “French Paradox.”

That is: the French, while having the same diet that other Europeans, live longer and healthier, because they drink red wine as a fundamental part of their regular diet.”

Wine, and particualrly red wine, has a high content of polyphenol antioxidants or tannins – as much as two to three grams per litre.

But wine can’t absorb all the health-preserving which exist in the grape: most of the antioxidants are left behind in the so-called pomace – that’s the waste skin and seed which is thrown away after pressing.

Xavier Rubires: “This is pomace, the residue of wine making – it’s wet, as you can see. One possibility being studied is to use what’s left of the grapes for cosmetic products – there are several research projects in this field… especially regarding red and black grapes, because they contain lots of antioxidants which are very good for skin preservation.”

Many studies have shown that polyphenols prevent various kinds of cancer; help in fighting inflammatory conditions, like coronary artery disease; and enhance the immune system.

European scientists, co-ordinated in Austria, set about extracting polyphenols from wine-making waste in a project called, appropriately, PARADOX.

The goal was to separate polyphenol essence from the pomace, and preserve it for adding to non-alcoholic food products.

Paolo Grassi – R&D Project Supervisor / GAT Food Essentials: “The problem with wine is that it contains ethanol, which is not good for liver – it damages the liver, and it’s addictive. With our products we try to extract and preserve the polyphenols contained in the wine”.

Researchers looked into the pomace of grapes from different climates, varieties, and wine-making processes to find the most efficient and environmentally-friendly way of isolating the grape antioxidants.

The project required close cooperation of sixteen partner institutions across the EU – including winegrowers, university laboratories, as well as big food and drink manufacturers.

Victor Casaña-Giner, Senior Scientific Manager, GAT Food Essentials: ”The residues of the wine-making process have practically no value, they are even toxic. We take this the stuff with zero or even negative value, and transform it into a highly valuable product.”

Getting the polyphenol elements out of the grape skin and seeds can be done in the lab with traditional extraction methods using water and alcohol – but for large-scale industrial production, scientists suggested using a CO2 separation technique, which is considered much greener and more economically viable.

Victor Casaña-Giner: ”This is the result of the extraction process. It’s the concentrate of polyphenols and other antioxidants. With this we can really start the process of micro-encapsulation”.

To preserve their anti-oxidising properties, the small granules of polyphenol powder need to be protected from any contact with oxygen or light.

So the scientists have to the cocoon the particles in protective polymer capsules – before they can be added to food ingredients.

They mix the polyphenol powder with oil and polymers, resulting in myriad microscopic polymer balloons encapsulating the tannin.

The result, they say, is a natural, easy-to-use, and stable food additive they’ve called ”PARADOX”.

Once inside the human body, acidic pH levels destroy the polymer shells, and the antioxidants can flow into the bloodstream.

Paolo Grassi: “Here we can see the microcapsules and polyphenols inside. It’s evident that their sizes vary, so when the capsules enter the stomach they dissolve gradually and there’s a good release of the polyphenol compounds.”

Victor Casaña-Giner: “This is precisely what we’re aiming for. This ball is just like a micro-capsule: polyphenols are inside, and like the air inside this ball they are protected from the environment. Nothing gets out or comes in, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to achieve by encapsulating the grape extract”.

And the research is looking further ahead, to develop individual polyphenol formulae to enrich different kinds of food – from muesli-bars and bread… to dairy products and drinks.

But food-chemistry experts warn that more extensive is needed to evaluate fully the recommended dosage and medical effects of various antioxidant additives.

Dr. Gerhard Sontag, Food Chemistry professor, Vienna University: “You have to be cautious buying these kind of ‘healthy’ products in a supermarket. Because exactly how much of this substance you’re ingesting is essential. It could speel the difference between a positive or a negative effect on your health.”

The target is to see supermarket shelves around the world stocked with an increasing variety of food products enriched with polyphenols derived from grapes.

Specialists believe it will echo the trend for organic food – and there’s a growing group of customers who hope the benefits of antioxidants will counteract the effects of a bad environment, or an over-indulgent lifestyle.

And an additive, (named after the European scientific project,) is already being made available to the food industry for research and development.

Natalia Sánchez Aixendri, Head of technical sales – Barentz Campi y Jové: ”It doesn’t have any taste. It feels a little like flour, and it won’t change the original flavour of the final product it has been added to.”

In the Bible, it’s written: “Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake.”

Two thousand years on, and the scientists reckon that it’s not just the stomach which could benefit.

Denis

Denis Loctier is a senior Euronews NBC science and nature correspondent. Since 2001, he has produced TV documentaries on more than 150 international research projects and covered a variety of other topics, from international politics and military conflicts to economy and tourism. He holds a double PhD degree in philology and information and communication sciences.

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