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A Healthy Toast
Celebrate the Season with (Organic) Wine  & Beer
by Wendy Priesnitz

organic wine and beerSo you’ve bought an organic turkey or have planned a special vegan alternative entrée. You’ll accompany the main course with an organic broth and salad, and maybe top it off with a Fair Trade organic chocolate and hemp ice cream dessert. But what about the wine or beer that you’ll be serving over the holidays? Is it organic? Is it even a legitimate component of a healthy meal?

Some people feel they are “allergic” to wine, beer or other alcoholic beverages. But rather than reacting to the alcohol, they may be reacting to some of the components or additives, such as brewers yeast, corn, eggs, molds, sulfites and pesticides. For instance, many wine and beer makers use egg protein to clarify their product during the brewing process, so anyone who is allergic to eggs might suffer a reaction. People with mold allergies also react to fermented products, which includes beer and wine. Sulfites are commonly added to beer and wine, but they are also naturally occurring; the common “red wine headache” can be attributed to sulfites, but they can also give you hives, an itchy nose and congestion.

On the other hand, moderate consumption of one to three drinks daily of beer or wine (especially red) has been shown to be beneficial to your health. A number of studies have shown that having a drink or two per day of alcohol can reduce your chances of developing heart disease. Flavonoids, found in large amounts in the seeds and skins of red grapes, apparently improves the balance of fats in the blood, often typified by the so-called “French Paradox” – the observation that, although the French diet tends to be higher in fat than the North American one, rates of coronary disease are lower. Subsequent studies have shown that beer can be equally as heart-healthy. In addition to alcohol’s effects on the heart, it has been associated with preserved brain functioning, fewer brain lesions and fewer so-called “silent strokes” caused by tiny blood clots in the brain.

Some doctors feel that beer is a better drink than other types of alcohol, because it contains many more nutrients per serving, such as protein and B-vitamins and minerals such as magnesium, cadmium and iron. Beer also contains isoflavonoids, which are a class of so-called phytoestrogens found to inhibit test-tube growth of prostate, breast and colon cancers. Of course, moderation is the key. Four drinks a day do more harm than good and death rates are higher for heavier drinkers than for abstainers.

One way to enjoy the health and lifestyle benefits of wine and beer is to choose organic. A bottle of organic wine or a gift basket of organic beer varieties also makes a great gift.

“Organic” is a term defined by law in many countries. Strictly speaking, it is the grapes, malt or hops that are certified to be grown organically, although that varies, as do the allowable levels of preservatives like sulfur dioxide, because individual certification bodies set their own standards. Some countries, such as Germany and France (which is the world’s biggest producer of organic wine), have developed standards for organic wine making. However, there are three different certification agencies in France alone: Ecocert, Terre et Vie and Nature et Progrès, all with different standards. Some wineries have moved beyond organic certification to pursuing a Biodynamic approach to land stewardship and cultivation, and have their sustainable practices recognized via Demeter certification.

Then there are the vineyards around the world that are using fewer or no pesticides, and/or employing natural controls instead of chemicals, but refuse to become certified organic. That’s because they want to have recourse to the chemical option in “an emergency”. And, of course, certification doesn’t speak to the quality of the wine. In fact, Englishman Malcolm Gluck, author of the best-selling book and popular website named Superplonk, describes organic wine as a utopia that may or may not be attainable.

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All of this makes it difficult for the consumer. The San Francisco-based Organic Grapes into Wine Alliance (OGWA) says that organic wine is currently defined in American law by default, as in “What isn’t organic wine?” “Although the growing of wine grapes organically is (in general terms) defined in both current California and federal law, nowhere in the USA do details exist on processing standards of organic winemaking.” It has been working for almost a decade to correct that problem.

Organic beer and spirits (like vodka) are perhaps more difficult to find than organic wine. For one reason, beer is highly perishable and doesn’t increase in quality and therefore value as it ages. But that is changing and retailers’ shelves are increasingly featuring a wider variety of organic brands of beer and spirits. The microbrewing phenomenon of the past few years has led to the development of many smaller, craft breweries, whose products may not be strictly organic but are bottled without preservatives. For that reason, they are usually only available within a small radius of the brewery.

With a little searching, you should be able to find an organic product that suits your taste and wallet to celebrate the upcoming holiday season. Cheers! 

Sulfites occur naturally in wine because fermenting yeasts produce sulfur dioxide from the inorganic sulfates in grape juices. Wine makers add more to inhibit the growth of molds and bacteria and to stop oxidation. Some organic wines may have no added sulfites, but some certification standards allow for sulfur dioxide treatment of wines as long as the resulting level of sulfites does not exceed 100 ppm. Generally, if the label on a bottle of organic wine says “contains sulfites,” the wine could contain between 10 ppm and 100 ppm. But an organic wine without such a label could have up to 10 ppm of sulfites. More about sulfites.

Animal Products?
As part of the final processing of wine and beer, they are “fined” or filtered to remove microscopic solids called colloids, which are left over from the fermentation process and potentially can cause protein spoilage. Most wines are filtered using animal products – isinglass (a form of gelatin made from an extract of fish bladder), milk or egg whites or casein (an egg by-product). But there are wines and beers suitable for vegetarians and vegans that have been filtered using clay or silica. However, such information is not always found on the label. So if you want to avoid animal products or are allergic to dairy or eggs, contact the winery or brewery and ask specifically what is used in the fining process. Organic certification doesn’t address the filtering issue and is therefore not a guarantee of vegan-friendliness.

Wendy Priesnitz is the Editor of Natural Life Magazine and a journalist with over 40 years of experience. She has also authored 13 books. 


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