Jeremy Laurance: Raise your glass to a diet rich in polyphenols

Medical Life
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Fancy a cocktail of polyphenols? I enjoyed a few especially fine examples last week, courtesy of William Harvey, the man who discovered the circulation of the blood. He is the most famous alumnus of the Royal College of Physicians, and as well as gaining a unique insight into the functioning of the body, had a canny understanding of the psyche. Harvey bequeathed to the college his patrimonial estate of Burmarsh in Kent, then valued at £56 annually (in 1656), and directed that there should be provided, once a year, a "public oration" by a member of the college, followed by a "general feast", such that the profession should "continue in mutual love and affection among themselves".

Thanks to Harvey's generosity, the college has one of the finest wine cellars in London. Last week, his descendants and their fortunate guests, including me, toasted his memory with a delicious premier grand cru St Emilion (Château La Gaffelière 1998), and a sensational vintage port (Warre's 1977), accompanied by some of the best venison I've tasted. No wonder the physicians are such a cheerful lot.

But you don't have to drink at this level to enjoy the benefits of polyphenols. By chance, just before the Harveian dinner, I received the new paperback of The Wine Diet by Roger Corder, professor of experimental therapeutics at – where else? – the William Harvey Research Institute at Barts.

Harvey would have been delighted at the modern interest in wine and its capacity to protect the heart and circulation. Polyphenols are the plant chemicals in wine, especially red, thought to provide its protective effect. Corder's principal point is that not all wine is the same – some, such as robust Sardinian reds, contain more polyphenols.

This is a diet that lives up to its claim to be enjoyable, is devised by someone who clearly enjoys food as well as wine, and knows what he's talking about, having spent 25 years researching heart disease. As well as good health, the glass or two of wine it prescribes each day encourages "mutual love and affection", which ought to have Harvey chuckling in his grave.

My neighbour at the dinner was the new head of the Health Protection Agency, Justin McCracken, whose adroit handling of a recent warning about the safety of low-energy light bulbs avoided a major scare. He had ordered a vegetarian meal. By coincidence, two years ago, I sat next to his predecessor, Pat Troop, who also ate vegetarian. Neither is a vegetarian, they just don't care to eat meat when unsure of the provenance. As holders of the most senior public-health post in the land, that is... food for thought.