I saw a lot of chatter over the weekend about how drinking Champagne can improve memory. The benefits are so amazing, the chatter said, that scientists say drink three glasses of day. The stunning news traveled fast, but unfortunately, the news was inaccurate.
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is
From what I can piece together, the UK's Evening Standard published an article late last week with an original headline that read "Drinking three glasses of Champagne a day could help prevent dementia and Alzheimer's disease." The article made the news sound recent, but the information was taken from a May 2013 Telegraph piece with the headline "Three glasses of fizz a day could improve your memory." That piece cited a study done by scientists at University of Reading, but it cited the amount of Champagne recommended inaccurately. The scientists were much more conservative about the number of glasses of bubbly involved:
New research shows that drinking one to three glasses of champagne a week may counteract the memory loss associated with aging, and could help delay the onset of degenerative brain disorders, such as dementia.
The Evening Standard has since corrected its headline and amended the end of the article to say it had originally said "three glasses a day" but the amount is actually "three glasses a week." That correction probably won't spread virally like the original news suggesting we could drink 21 glasses of Champagne a week and call it a health tonic.
What the study does reveal
Here's what you really need to know. The University of Reading study found that "phenolic compounds found in champagne can improve spatial memory, which is responsible for recording information about one's environment, and storing the information for future navigation."
As we age, memory storage becomes less efficient. Phenolics "favorably alter a number of proteins linked to the effective storage of memories in the brain." The two red grapes most often used to make Champagne, pinot noir and pinot meunier, contain high levels of phenolics. Therefore, Champagne "may help prevent the cognitive losses that occur during typical and atypical brain aging."
The experiment was done on rats, not on humans, according to the 2013 Telegraph piece — which despite its inaccurate initial headline has the rest of the information correct. Rats were put in a maze to hunt for an edible treat. Five minutes later, they were put in the same position to see if they could remember where the treat was found. If they were given no Champagne, they could remember about 50 percent of the time. With Champagne, they could remember about 70 percent of the time.
The proteins that improve memory increased about 200 percent in six weeks in the rats. The assumption is that it would take humans about three years to see the same results. At the time, a human experiment was in the planning stages, and if that did come to fruition, there are probably 60 British pensioners in the middle of an experiment, drinking Champagne regularly for three years.
All Champagne will not have the positive effect
While the headlines are saying Champagne is good for memory, what's not being mentioned is that not all Champagne contains the beneficial phenolics.
When Champagne is made from all white grapes, such as chardonnay, it will not contain the high concentration of phenolics as Champagne made from the red grapes pinot noir and pinot meunier. A Champagne made from all white grapes will be labeled as blanc de blancs, French for "white of whites." Champagnes made with the black-skinned grapes are labeled blanc de noirs, French for "white of blacks."
If you want to use bubbly as one method for keeping your memory in working order, you need to look for sparkling wines that use the black-skinned grapes, and they don't necessarily have to be Champagnes. Many Spanish cavas use pinot noir grapes, and plenty of American sparkling wines use pinot noir grapes or a combination of pinot noir and chardonnay. The Italian prosecco, if you're wondering, is traditionally made from the white-skinned glera grape, so it wouldn't be one you would want to choose if you're looking for a high concentration of phenolics.