Grape skin, the outer layer of the grape (Vitis vinifera), is either green, red, or purplish-black in color. The skin, stem, seeds, and juice of the grape are used in making wine. Although the skin, stem, and seeds are often used in making the nutritional supplement, grape skin extract, the extract sometimes contains grape skin only. Generally, the skin of red grapes is used in making nutritional supplements.
In 1535, sailors on Jacques Cartier's expedition to Canada became seriously ill with scurvy, a vitamin deficiency. This degenerative disease of connective tissues was caused by the lack of vitamins in the typical seafarer's diet—a menu of dried meat and biscuits. The crew was saved by the advice of a Native American, who recommended drinking tea made from the bark of a particular species of pine tree. In the 1930s, researchers discovered that the ascorbic acid (vitamin C) in fruits and vegetables prevented scurvy.
The pine extract, however, contained very little vitamin C. For more than 50 years, European biochemists have been researching the seafarers' more likely rescuer—a family of antioxidant polyphenols (acid compounds) called pycnogenols, whose primary active compounds are pigments called oligomeric proanthocyanidins (OPCs). French chemist Jack Masquelier isolated OPCs from peanut skins in 1947 and coined the term "pycnogenols" to describe the unique class of polyphenols to which OPCs belong.
Although people have been drinking wine for centuries, scientific research into the health benefits of products derived from red grapes began in Europe in the mid to late twentieth century. Supplemental OPCs have been used in Europe since 1950 to treat weak blood capillaries, postsurgical edema (swelling), cirrhosis (liver disease), varicose veins, and diabetic retinopathy (eye disease resulting from diabetes). Early identification of OPCs as useful for treating capillary fragility gave researchers some indication of their potential value in connective tissue disorders. However, this limited focus tended to overlook the additional therapeutic possibilities of OPCs and, until the latter part of the twentieth century, distracted scientists from investigating broader uses for OPCs.
Aside from pine bark, OPCs are concentrated in grape seeds and skins, wine, green and black teas, beans, and the skins of many fruits. Generally, the more intense the color, the more OPCs in the food, which explains why red wine has a greater health benefit than white wine. When red wine is made, the "must" is used—the skins, seeds, and stems. The must is left in the mixture for a long period of time as the wine ferments and the OPCs emerge, giving red wine its characteristic flavor and color.
In the case of white wine, however, the must is taken out early, so the wine neither darkens nor absorbs as many OPCs. Grape juice also contains OPCs. However,
researchers have found that grape juice may not confer the same health benefits as red wine.
Genevieve Slomski, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit,