I was recently lucky enough to go wine-tasting in the south of France, near Marseille. For anyone who has never been, I strongly encourage you to go, partly because the wine is absolutely delicious, and partly because the scenery is seriously beautiful.
But among the amazingly delicious wines, there was a slight sour note. When we got to the first winery, just before we tried our very first delectable straw-colored blend, we were told that these wines were extra good. Not only were they made from 25-year-old vines — apparently a decent age for wine grapes — but they were something far, far better.
They were organic.
Not only did this mean that we were drinking wines that were good for the planet, we were also drinking wines that were good for us.
You see, the vintner said, organic wines don’t have all those nasty chemicals that most wines do. And being free of chemicals, not only is a glass a day good for your health — despite warnings from those so-called health professionals about the dangers of drinking — but this wine was so good that it wouldn’t even give you a headache. Not even a hangover!
If it sounds too good to be true, well, there’s a good reason for that.
This statement began — as all the arguments about organics do — with the idea that there is something intrinsically different about organics. It’s not that they are cleaner, precisely, but that the farmers who grow organic food don’t use all of the nasty chemicals that we all know are the bread-and-butter of modern farming. This makes them safer not just for the environment but for you and me.
This entire idea is predicated on two assumptions. The first one is that modern farming is bad for our health, because it uses chemicals that can cause negative health impacts. Whilst this is partially true — high levels of pesticides can be detrimental to human health — it ignores the fact that the negligible levels of pesticides remaining in foods consumed by humans have been demonstrated to be safe. This assumption plays into the idea that manufactured products are scary and bad, and that natural things must be good, ignoring the fact that natural things include snake venom and great white sharks and manufactured things include scrambled eggs and chocolate cake.
The second assumption is that organic foods contain no pesticides, and are therefore better than traditionally-farmed goods. This is categorically untrue. Most organic farms use pesticides liberally. The only difference is in the origin of the pesticides: if they come from ‘natural’ sources, a farm can be certified organic and still use them. Again, this ignores how damaging ‘natural’ products can be for human health.
And when we look at the health benefits of organic foods, well, there aren’t any. The study I just cited is a systematic review of nearly 100,000 studies, and in that massive collection of literature the scientists didn’t find a single health claim about organics that was actually well-supported by science.
So, the premise of organic wine being healthy — that it avoids nasty chemicals — is simply wrong.
Why do people still say that it is?
A lot of the ‘organic’ argument about wines comes down to a commonly-added preservative class known as sulphites. This class includes a number of chemicals that are used to help stop bacterial growth in wine and keep it fresh for longer.
There’s a very common claim that headaches caused by wine are due to sulphites. The idea is that a lot of people have a low-level allergy to sulphites and that adding them into wines is the major cause of migraines that some people suffer after drinking. Since many organic wines don’t add sulphites to their products, the idea is that they are better for your health and won’t give you a headache after drinking them.
Of course, this ignores one of the main attractions of drinking wine completely: alcohol. Whilst sulphite allergies are not unknown — it’s estimated that somewhere around 1% of the population has some form of sulphite allergy — alcohol is well-known to cause any number of health issues including headaches and nausea.
It also ignores the fact that many food products contain far higher levels of sulphites than wines do. If you don’t have a reaction to dried fruit, which contains about 10x as much sulphite as most wines, then you probably don’t have to worry about sulphites in wines.
Basically, sulphites in wines are unlikely to cause health issues. And organic wines not adding them will not in any way make the wine healthier.
The other health claims around organic wines come back to the basic tenet of the organic movement: natural is good, manufactured is bad, so buy our products for 10x as much.
And whilst it sounds seductive to believe that drinking organic wine could make you healthier, it’s just not the case. Alcohol is bad for your health. Products containing alcohol cause innumerable harms to your body. There is no reason to believe that there is any health benefit to drinking organic wine, and plenty of reasons to doubt. The only truly safe amount of alcohol to drink is none.
Ultimately, it all comes down to a simple fact: organic products don’t do anything for your health.
This is not to say that they are useless. There is certainly evidence that organics are better for the environment, and if you’re worried about biodiversity then spending a few extra dollars on organic fruit and veg might be a good choice.
But from a health perspective, it makes no difference if your grapes are grown organically or at a traditional vineyard — the result is the same.
If you enjoyed, or just love wine, let me know by sending some claps my way with the hand button below! You can also follow me here or on twitter, or read another of my articles about why moderate drinking is still bad for your health, why raw milk is definitely bad for your health, or why bras are probably fine.
You might notice I’ve steered clear of the question of taste. This is partially because wine-making is a complex art which I am not qualified to talk about, and partly because I am a pleb who likes wines that taste “grapey” and have no idea about the more complex subtleties that go into really spectacular wines. Organic wines might taste better, but honestly I’ve never noticed that big a difference. I do recommend going to a vineyard sometime, it’s an amazing experience to talk to the wine makers in person whilst drinking their wines.