For years, nutritionists were baffled by what is known as the French paradox. How could a country eat so much creamy brie and still have such low rates of heart disease? The answer now famously lies in the red wine that the French favor. It's loaded with substances that are good for the blood vessels.
Now it turns out that many of the health benefits of red wine can be achieved with a teetotaler's special: grape juice.
Essentially red wine without the alcohol, grape juice doesn't just solve the French paradox. It may help you solve paradoxes, puzzles, riddles and all manner of brainteasers. That's because the benefits of grape juice and red wine hit the brain as well as the heart.
The brain benefits of grape juice stem from its flavonoids, natural plant chemicals that act as antioxidants. Antioxidants mop up the harmful free radicals generated when cells burn oxygen for energy, and their activity seems to help the brain in two ways.
First, the very same general antioxidant activity that protects the heart also protects the brain, since the brain—a metabolic furnace that is the body's biggest user of oxygen—depends on a constant blood flow. Grape juice flavonoids help keep arteries clear by reducing the production of clotting factors while increasing the production of nitric oxide, a substance that keeps arteries open.
Flavonoids may also increase the production of "good" HDL cholesterol and lessen the risk of clogged arteries posed by "bad" LDL cholesterol. And a recent preliminary study hints that daily glasses of grape juice may even help matters further by reducing blood pressure.
Research, while still in the early stages, suggests that the antioxidants in grape juice may also protect brain cells directly. For example, experiments at Tufts University suggest that grape juice may improve the strength, memory, and coordination of laboratory rats.
The flavonoids that give grapes their health benefits also give them their color. So research of antioxidant properties has focused on Concord grape juice, made from dark purple Concord grapes.
Concord grape juice turns out to be an even more potent source of antioxidants than the grapes alone. That's because most of the fabulous flavonoids are in the skin and seeds of grapes, and in the process of making red juice or wine, the skin and the seeds stay mixed with the flesh for an extended period of time, allowing the flavonoids to seep into the juice. Since many people don't eat the seeds of grapes, they miss out on many flavonoids even when they pop grapes straight from the vine.
Concord grape juice is particularly rich in one of the heart-healthiest of flavonoid types, the proanthocyanidins. It's got more of them than any other beverage tested by the Department of Agriculture—more than red wine, more than twice the amount found in cranberry juice. It also stacks up well against whole fruits. An eight-ounce serving of grapes has about the same amount of proanthocyanidins as a half cup serving of blueberries, about 50 percent more than a Fuji apple and about twice as much as a half cup of green or red grapes.
It's easy to work grape juice into your diet, says registered dietitian Ruth Carey. She suggests that one or two servings of juice make up part of your recommended daily five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables. Since grape juice does contain sugar, you shouldn't drink it as a replacement for water, but rather as a replacement for sodas and flavored beverages and as a complement to meals. A grape juice spritzer, made by mixing juice with seltzer, makes a refreshing treat.
You'll get a glassful of heart and brain benefits from either French red wine or American Concord grape juice. Grape juice does have one advantage, though: kids can drink it too.