“We crush grapes, you crush life.”
So goes the slogan for FitVine, a year-old wine company that “was born when friends made a pact to craft amazing wines that also fit their lifestyles. Our team is always on the go, whether we’re doing CrossFit, cycling, running, skiing, paddle boarding, or just enjoying the outdoors.”
Then there’s Cense, a lower-than-typical-calorie-count wine “for a well-balanced life,” made in partnership with WeightWatchers. It’s similar to low-calorie SkinnyGirl wines, whose website trumpets, “At just 100 calories per serving, you can give yourself permission to enjoy a palate-pleasing Pinot!”
The subtext here? “Wine can be healthy! And you go, girl!”
The irony, of course, is that this sort of “pinkwashing”—using breast cancer awareness to sell products—ignores the fact that alcohol can up a woman’s odds of developing breast cancer. “It is clearly and well known that alcohol consumption increases the risk of breast cancer in women,” says Yikyung Park, ScD, associate professor of surgery at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
Park studies cancer almost exclusively in her work and has noticed that the link between cancer and alcohol is not widely understood, in part because of the studies that emerged about the possible heart benefits of red wine. Though oenophiles glommed on to that news, those benefits are now also up for grabs. “Maybe they heard that moderate drinking may be good for their heart. But more recent studies show that heavy drinking does increase heart disease risk,” she says. “It’s now debatable.”
You may have also heard that one drink daily is OK for women, and two drinks daily are OK for men. But, Park parries, “Even one drink a day does increase the risk of breast cancer.”
But what about FitVine and Cense, those lower-calories wines? Are they better for us? Park is to the point: “I don’t think they have any scientific ground to say that their wine is less harmful than the others. In animal and human studies, alcohol is known to cause cancer. Low carbohydrates … doesn’t mean these wines have low content of alcohol.” Neither FitVine nor Cense responded to Health‘s request for comment.
Most companies avoid using the word “healthy” in marketing alcohol products, but when Health shared images of wines that drape themselves in pink ribbons with Park, she was speechless for several minutes. At last, she said, “First of all, I’m not that much of a wine drinker, so I wasn’t aware of what was going on. I hope those companies do provide some funding for [breast cancer] research.” (Many of them do—typically in modest amounts, such as five cents per can of beer.)
Regardless, says Park, “It does give the wrong impression. Nowadays, there are so many women who are breast cancer survivors and we don’t know … the effect of alcohol on breast cancer survivors. If breast cancer survivors see this kind of bottle, I’m afraid they may get the wrong sort of message.”
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How about men? Do they get off scot-free when it comes to booze? “Liver, head and neck, esophagus—all these cancer [rates] are higher in men than women,” Park says, and drinking alcohol can increase those risks. There are a number of other health factors at play, of course–women and men metabolize alcohol differently, for example–says Park, but alcohol isn’t exactly “healthy” for fellas, either.
If you’d like to take a real crack at upgrading your health, consider leaving the hot-pink beribboned bottle stopper on eBay, and take a hard look instead at your alcohol consumption habits. As Park explains, when it comes to cancer, “Those drinking more for longer periods have higher risks.”
Alex Van Buren—follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen—is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and content strategist who has written for The Washington Post, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and Epicurious.