Wine is the only alcoholic drink that is beneficial to health, scientists have said, after finding studies that suggest moderate drinking can lower mortality are flawed.
Currently NHS guidance states that people should drink no more than 14 units of alcohol a week, while several studies have reported that sensible alcohol intake is healthier than being tee-total.
But new research by Anglia Ruskin University, which followed 446,439 UK Biobank participants over seven years, found that even low-level consumption of beer, cider and spirits was associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular events, coronary heart disease, stroke, cancer, and overall mortality.
The only health benefit discovered was a decreased risk of coronary heart disease in people who regularly drank wine.
The team showed that the harmful impact of alcohol had often been masked by the benefit of wine because many studies had lumped all drinks together.
When researchers looked at beer, cider or spirits on their own, even drinking within guidelines increased the risk of cardiovascular events by 30 per cent. In contrast, wine drinkers lowered their risk by around five to 10 per cent.
‘Even low levels of alcohol consumption can be damaging to our health’
Dr Rudolph Schutte from Anglia Ruskin University said: “I believe we are underestimating the risk associated with alcohol intake. The current recommendations in the UK are to drink no more than 14 units of alcohol a week.
“This equates to seven pints of average-strength beer, around nine 125ml glasses of wine, or 14 single measures of spirits. However, our findings show that even low levels of alcohol consumption can be damaging to our health.”
The research also found that previous studies which showed moderate drinking is better than being tee-total are flawed because they fail to take into account that many people have given up alcohol because they are already unwell.
“A group of non-drinkers will contain individuals who abstain from alcohol due to various pre-existing health reasons, making this reference group surprisingly high-risk,” added Dr Schutte.
“Comparing a group of low to moderate drinkers to this ‘risky’ reference group of non-drinkers could wrongly indicate that alcohol is beneficial to health.
“There is an undeniable protective beneficial relationship between coronary heart disease and consumption of both red and white wine. However, this is only seen with coronary heart disease and none of the other cardiovascular diseases.
“This relationship is also seen for alcohol-free wine, so it suggests the benefits are thanks to the polyphenols in the wine rather than the alcohol.”
Dr Schutte said wine had been shown to raise blood pressure and so was also likely to be harmful to health in some ways.
The research was presented at the British Science Festival in Chelmsford and is due to be published in the journal Clinical Nutrition.