The French Paradox in a capsule


They call it the French Paradox – the fact that the French enjoy a rich diet yet have one of the lowest rates of heart disease in Europe. The key to this phenomenon is red wine, which is rich in antioxidants – chemicals which are known to provide protection against a range of diseases, including heart disease and cancer.

Now the PARADOX (‘French paradox – red wine extract food additives’) project has captured the health giving properties of red wine and turned them into an alcohol free additive which can be easily added to a wide range of foods and drinks without altering their flavour.

Tests in the lab and in human volunteers have proven the effectiveness of the substance and work is now underway to include it in products such as muesli bars, bread and dairy products.

The PARADOX project brought together 16 partners, including wine producers, research laboratories and food manufacturers, from 9 EU Member States.


Getting to the heart of the mystery

The idea that wine might have medicinal properties is nothing new; Hippocrates, the father of medicine, recommended certain wines to cure fevers and disinfect wounds. More recently, in 1979, a study by British researchers noted that countries where moderate wine consumption is the norm tend to have lower than average levels of heart disease.

Red wine owes its healthy reputation to its high levels of powerful antioxidants such as polyphenols. Extensive research has revealed that a diet rich in antioxidants is good for our health.

Antioxidants play an important role in preventing disease by destroying the free radicals which damage our DNA and our cells. They promote good cardiovascular health by decreasing cholesterol and lowering blood pressure, thereby helping us to avoid blocked arteries, heart attacks, strokes and other diseases. Antioxidants have also been found to prevent a range of cancers, protect us from age-related neurodegeneration and boost our immune systems when they are weakened.

The PARADOX project partners set out to identify and isolate the antioxidants found in red wine, and transform the resulting extract into a food additive with an acceptable flavour and a long shelf life. This last point is particularly important because many existing antioxidant food additives quickly lose their effectiveness.

From waste product to valuable raw material

The raw material for the PARADOX project came in the form of grape pomace, the mass of grape skins and seeds which is left over after the grapes have been pressed for wine making. Until the PARADOX project came along, the pomace was seen as a waste product and discarded accordingly. Nevertheless, like wine, grape pomace contains high levels of antioxidants.

The project partners set about investigating how best to extract the antioxidants from the pomace to get high yields as economically as possible. Once obtained, the extract is dried, giving a powder that is a 100 per cent concentrate of polyphenols and other health giving molecules.

Analyses revealed that the extract contained several important antioxidant compounds, including tannins and a number of polyphenols such as flavonoids, which are thought to boost the immune system and protect the body from toxins produced by bacteria. Another compound found in the extract was resveratrol, which is believed to be the main ingredient which gives wine its anti-cancer properties.

Tests in the lab showed that the extract reduces oxidative stress in living cells and blocks the action of an enzyme called ET-1 which is involved in the destruction of blood vessels. The substance also has a strong inhibitory effect on prostate and breast cancer cell lines.


New technologies to protect a new product

In theory, the powder form of the extract could have been added straight to foods as it was. However, like other grape extracts which are rich in antioxidants, the pomace extract quickly loses its beneficial properties. This is because a combination of industrial processing methods and time leave the antioxidants vulnerable to oxidation.

The PARADOX team therefore developed a new microencapsulation technology to protect their precious product from oxidation, light, temperature and pressure stress. The resulting substance has a much longer shelf life than similar functional foods. The researchers called their product Paradox 41.

The microcapsules are minute – just a fraction of a millimetre across. When swallowed, they dissolve in the acidic juices of the digestive system, and their antioxidant contents are liberated. The microencapsulation process has now been patented.

Paradox 41 is designed to be added to a wide range of foods and drinks. To assess its health benefits, the partners carried out two clinical trials on volunteers who were given orange juice containing microencapsulated grape pomace extract every day for two weeks. By the end of this period, the volunteers had higher levels of antioxidant circulating in their blood.

The product therefore offers protection against the many diseases which are largely caused by oxidative stress, such as cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Paradox 41 is now commercially available; it is marketed as a product called PARADOX PLY by GAT Food Essentials, the company which coordinated the PARADOX project. Food manufacturers can add PARADOX PLY to their products to create functional foods with a clear added value for consumers.

As a result, the benefits of the French Paradox could soon be enjoyed by all Europeans, not just those with a penchant for red wine.