Behind the headlines

Can blueberries and red wine help with impotence?


“Impotence ‘helped by red wine’, British scientists find,” said the Evening Standard. The Daily Mail said: “Red wine and fruit are the new Viagra.” We go behind the headlines.

Consuming blueberries and red wine regularly can reduce the risk of impotence in middle-aged men by up to 10 per cent, according to a study by Harvard University and the University of East Anglia. 

The study found having higher level of flavonoids in the diet was similarly effective in cutting the risk of erectile dysfunction as regular physical activity (the equivalent of two to five hours of walking a week). Exercise is already known to cut the risk of erectile dysfunction. The combination of flavonoids and regular exercise cut the risk of erectile dysfunction by 21 per cent.

Blueberries and red wine, as well as strawberries, apples, pears, radishes and citrus fruit, are rich in flavonoids, which are known for their antioxidant effect. These have already been found to reduce people’s chances of developing cardiovascular disease.

We already knew that flavonoids may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, heart attack and even death

Professor Aedin Cassidy
Lead Researcher

Dr Eric Rimm, Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, said "Erectile dysfunction is often an early barometer of poor vascular function and offers a critical opportunity to intervene and prevent cardiovascular disease, heart attack and even death.”

Lead researcher Professor Aedin Cassidy from the University of East Anglia said: “We already knew that intake of certain foods high in flavonoids may reduce the risk of conditions including diabetes and cardiovascular disease. 

“We examined six main types of commonly consumed flavonoids and found that three in particular – anthocyanins, flavanones and flavones – are beneficial.”

What the papers said

The story was reported the Evening Standard, The Telegraph, Huffington Post and the Daily Mail, among others. The headlines tended to focus on “impotence” and “red wine”, while the percentage of risk reduction wasn’t introduced until further down the article, possibly because it is not a particularly high figure at 10 per cent.  

Most of the coverage articles didn’t go into detail about the amount of flavonoids needed to have an effect. Some followed the (slightly vague) quote from Professor Cassidy given in the press release, which was “In terms of quantities, we’re talking just a few portions a week.”

The study didn’t assess red wine separately from other sources of flavonoids, so the focus on red wine in the headlines may not be helpful - excess consumption of alcohol can increase the chances of impotence, for example.

Strengths and weaknesses

Strengths of the survey include the large sample size and long-term follow up, and that it took a number of other factors into account that could have skewed the results, including whether the subject drank a lot, smoked or was overweight.

Weaknesses included the fact that it was difficult to accurately measure the flavonoid intake, partly because it can vary according to growing conditions and manufacturing methods.

The study was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

The BHF view

Our Senior Dietitian, Victoria Taylor, said: “Although this study links a higher intake of flavonoids with a lower likelihood of developing erectile dysfunction, this type of research can only show an association, not cause and effect. So we can’t say that eating more flavonoids will resolve the problem in those that have it already, or why this link was observed.

“But this study does add to existing research which has linked flavonoid consumption to a number of cardiovascular benefits. While these substances are found in a range of foods, including red wine and chocolate, the best sources are fruit and vegetables. 

“Dark green and purple fruit and vegetables, such as spinach, beetroot, cherries and berries, including blueberries, are all examples of good sources. As well as flavonoids they provide other vitamins, minerals and fibre too, but without added salt, sugar or alcohol.”

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