Vitis vinifera: the goodness of grapes

griffin+row University active ingredient series

Vitis vinifera or grape seed extract is one of the essential actives in our centess+complex range and has been used since early European folk healers took advantage of its wide-ranging therapeutic benefits.

Read on to find out why grape seed extract continues to prove itself as a naturally effective bioactive, in another example of botanicals borrowed from traditional medicine to benefit our skin and general health.

Introducing vitis vinifera

Fresh bunch of grapes with leaves isolated on a white background
Vitis vinifera: the common red grape vine

Native to the Mediterranean region and Western Asia, Vitis vinifera (V. vinifera) is also known as the red grape vine. There are currently between 5,000 and 10,000 varieties of V. vinifera grapes with variable factors such as climate and growing conditions. This has provided a staggering diversity of V. vinifera grapes differing in composition and therefore their chemical composition profile, taste and health benefits.

Humans have had a relationship with V. vinifera since the Neolithic period, with foragers and early farmers harvesting these berries. 1 The fruit has long been harvested for both its nutritional and medicinal values and shares a closely-linked history with the production and consumption of wine. Egyptians ate grapes at least 6,000 years ago and several ancient Greek philosophers praised the healing properties of grapes- usually in the form of vino.

European colonisation catalysed the spread of V. vinifera species across the world, with its introduction to Australia, Africa, North and South America in the 17th Century.

High concentrations of V. vinifera vineyards correlate with renowned wine-producing regions of Australia and New Zealand; in Europe the grapes can be found in the southern and central wine-growing regions, and in pockets of Asia like the Middle East, China, Turkey and in the Caucasus mountains to name a few.

Traditional uses of vitis vinifera

egypt-grape-harvest
Ancient Egyptian grape harvest, Tomb of Nakht, 14BC

Health benefits have been associated with vine leaves and wine since ancient times, with Ancient Egyptians and Sumerians leaving medicinal recipes inscribed on tablets and on papyrus. Traditional European folk doctors used the sap of grapevines to create an ointment useful in treating eye and skin conditions. The juice or tea prepared from the vine leaves were also used by Native North American indigenous tribes to treat pain and inflammation, soothing headaches, rheumatism and sore breasts. 2 Grape seed extract was also used in Indian traditional medicine to treat scabies, gonorrhoea, haemorrhoids and as an anti-emetic.

Depending on the ripeness of the grapes, the fruit were used in the treatment of different diseases: ripe, sweet grapes used to treat cholera, cancer, smallpox, eye infections and diseases of the liver, kidneys and skin. Unripe grapes were taken for sore throats and dried grapes (raisins) administered for constipation. As the fruit ripens the chemical composition of the grapes change, providing different properties for use medicinally.

General health benefits and uses

V. vinifera is used in a wide range of cosmetic products such as soap, make up, skin and hair care products. 3 Grape seed extract or hydrogenated grape seed oil are used in personal care for their numerous beneficial qualities such as anti-microbial, anti-oxidant, anti-fungal and UV absorbing properties. It also acts as a skin conditioning agent and emulsifier, cleansing and softening the skin. 4 The wide-ranging profile of grape seed extract make it a fantastic:

Anti-oxidant in prevention of >100 conditions where free radical oxidative damage is implicated e.g. arthritis, ageing, Alzheimers and tumour promotion 5
Anti-inflammatory in treatment of wounds and allergic responses
Anti-microbial (antiseptic) activity particularly against MRSA superbug Staphylococcus aureus 6
and a Sunscreen with topical application providing SPF enhancement 5

Research has shown that taking a grape seed extract supplement significantly increases the level of antioxidants in the blood. Increasing the number of bioavailable antioxidants in the body reduces the number of free radicals present, and thereby reduces the chances of developing health conditions caused by free radicals, such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. 5 Scientists have suggested that the powerful anti-oxidants classed as oligomeric pro-anthocyanidin complexes (OPCs) – the most abundant polyphenol in grapes- could be used to treat a number of conditions such as heart disease, cancer and skin ageing though further scientific studies are required to prove the therapeutic effects in human systems.

The topical application of grape seed pro-anthocyanidin extract (GSPE) provides excellent protection against oxidative stress and free radical initiated tissue injury, showing great potential as a sunscreen. Research studies have confirmed that GSPE has greater antioxidant capacity and free radical scavenging ability than Vitamins C and E, both singly and in combination. 5 Proactive application of a 1% GSPE cream 30 minutes before sun exposure (UVA-UVB) has been shown to provide a 9% increase in SPF protection. The grape seed extract ointment is thought to be effective through tissue conditioning and potentially through its ability to scavenge for UV-generated free radicals.

There is also good scientific evidence to show the efficacy of GSPE in treating chronic venous insufficiency where blood pools in the legs and can cause pain, swelling and visible veins. 7 High quality research shows that taking grape seed extract speeds the reduction of oedema– the swelling caused by either surgery or injury. One study also shows a reduction in pain and swelling post breast cancer surgery, showing promise in natural botanical extracts speeding up recovery post surgery.

Botany and make it yourself

Grape vines at harvest time in Moldova
Vitis vinifera or the common grapevine is a liana- or woody climbing plant with a flaky bark- and can grow up to 32 metres in length with long, broad heart-shaped alternating leaves. Its fruit are berries (or grapes), arranged in large and long clusters with the wild species ripening to produce smaller (6mm) black-purple coloured grapes, and cultivated plants producing larger fruit up to 3cm in size. Cultivated grapes can be black-purple, red or yellow-green in colour.

Viticulture is the specific branch of horticulture that refers to the science behind the growth, production and study of grapes. Though the ideal climate for vine production is warmer agricultural zones, the vine has demonstrated hardiness and adaptability to new environments, and as such Vitis vinifera can be found growing on every continent except Antarctica. The majority of the worlds’ wine producing regions are found in temperate regions with annual mean temperatures between 10-20 ºC. Having mountainous regions or large bodies of water nearby can positively affect the quality of the vines produced with grapevines preferring humid forests or habitats next to streams. Running water from rivers and lakes can act as buffers for dramatic temperature changes by heat transfer from the water to warm the vines.

Viticulturists usually work very closely with winemakers as the nuances of vineyard management and the characteristics of the resulting grapes produced are intertwined in wine making.

Make your own

Though you can purchase grape seed extract as a supplement from your health food store, it is possible to prepare your own from the fruit. A century ago grape seed oil would have been extracted using a manual wedge press, however pharmaceutical companies now apply a combination of heat and solvent to allow the quicker and more effective extraction of oil from the seeds. 8 Once the oil is extracted, the seeds themselves can be air dried and ground into a powder and either administered as it is or in capsule form.

You can prepare your own grape seed extract for personal use by making use of a cold press and a grinder- items you may already have in your kitchen. 9

First, remove the skin and seeds from the grapes employing a fine mesh strainer if doing this by hand. Wash the filtered grape extracts thoroughly. Set aside the seeds and skin to dry for around 24 hours. You can speed up the seeds’ drying process by heating them at a very low temperature on the hob- a method employed traditionally to increase the yield of oil from the seeds.

Excess oil and juices from the grape seeds can be removed by adding the grape extracts to the cold press and pressing until the oil visibly separates from the solids. If you’d like to collect the grape seed oil, set the press aside to allow the oil more time to separate from the other extracts, before skimming and saving the oil in an air tight bottle for therapeutic and culinary use.

Grape seed extract versus oil

You may come across either grape seed extract or grape see oil in personal care products, as both are used as naturally beneficial ingredients. Grape seed oil has a similar yet slightly different biochemical composition to the seed extract, containing many of the same polyphenols as the seed extract but is also rich in beneficial fatty acids and Vitamin E.

To prepare the grape seed extract, separate out the remaining skin extracts and discard, leaving the seeds to dry before grinding until they form a fine powder. You can prepare grape seed extract capsules by filling empty gelatine capsules, or leave in its powdered form. Keep both powdered and capsule extracts in an airtight container away from sunlight.

If you’re considering taking either home-made or store bought grape seed (V. vinifera) extract, please consult with your healthcare practitioner to ensure any supplements you take are compatible with your personal health profile. In general, supplements can vary dramatically in the level of concentration of bioactive compounds delivered to your system so it’s important to get appropriate advice from a herbalist.

Bioactivity and associated components of the plant

Grapes and in particular wine have long been lauded as beneficial to health, with red wine in particular hitting the headlines with people eager to discover science-backed reasons to continue indulging (moderately) in one of lifes’ pleasures. Since the 1980s the ‘French paradox’ has fuelled discussion around the role of red wine bioactives in preventing heart disease in one theory explaining a paradoxically low heart attack rate in a culture known for its high intake of saturated fats (think cheese).

Grape seed and skin contain several active components, with grape seed extract in particular being shown to be endowed with a broad set of therapeutic effects thanks to its anti-oxidative, anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties. Grape seed extract has also been shown to have cardio, neuro and hepatoprotective effects protecting our heart, brain and liver from disease. 10

Anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant compounds

Grapes contain an extremely high level of polyphenols, which are widely regarded as the source of bioactivity in many plants. Powerful polyphenol anti-oxidants Vitamin E, flavonoids and OPCs are present in high levels in grape seed extract, and can also be found in lower concentrations in grape skin, juice and wine.

In red wine, up to 90% of the polyphenol compounds present fall into the flavonoids sub-category, which are known to be highly bioactive and feature in the chemical profile of many of griffin+row active ingredients. Flavonoids are found widely in nature and are responsible not only for the impressive anti-oxidant levels we find in many plants, but also the vibrant colours we encounter in our vegetable patch, with flavonoid plant pigments giving colour to carrots, beetroot and berries amongst many others.

Between 60-70% of these highly bioactive polyphenols can be found in the grape seed, with the main polyphenols being from the catechin and epicatechin families. You may be familiar with epicatechin itself as its an extremely effective anti-oxidant component also found in green tea.

Other interesting bioactives found in grape seed extract are anthocyanins that in addition to their anti-oxidant profile give grapes and other fruit and vegetables their red, purple and blue colours; and stillbenoids, naturally occurring compounds that plants use to defend themselves against bacterial and fungal infections and include the much-researched resveratrol.

resveratrol
Resveratrol

Resveratrol is chemically related to OPCs and has become a popular ingredient for use as a highly effective anti-oxidant in skincare solutions. Early scientific trials suggest the combination of anti-oxidant potency and anti-mutagenic properties may make resveratrol a significant bioactive effective in cancer prevention. 11 Research into the efficacy of resveratrol in prevention and treatment of a diverse array of human diseases is still highly active, 12 with many of the promising results arising from early trials needing further study to demonstrate the same effects in humans.

Another study on the topical application of a mixture of the grape polyphenols extract showed highly effective protection against tumour proliferation. This anti-carcinogenic effect is thought to be largely due to the highly potent anti-oxidant properties of the OPCs and other polyphenols like resveratrol and quercertin.

Further scientific studies are required to look at flavonoids (and polyphenols more widely) as dietary supplements rather than examining their effect as part of a diet higher in flavonoid-containing fruit and vegetables. This will help us fully understand and corroborate the wide-ranging therapeutic effects of these naturally effective bioactives.

Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHA) compounds

Vitis vinifera also contains tartaric and malic acids which are responsible for giving wine its distinctive astringent taste. These acids are both alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) which you may have seen as ingredients in other skin care products.

AHAs are added to skin care products as they are known to help exfoliate the top layers of skin, restore moisture balance and assist the absorption of other cosmetic ingredients. This helps to improve the texture of the skin and correct any skin pigmentation issues. Although some of the AHA actives in grape seed extract make the skin more susceptible to UV damage through exfoliation, 13 it also contains other polyphenol compounds (such as flavonoids and polyphenolic acids) that act as UV absorbers 14 that counteract the risk of UV overexposure.

Myrecetin: a spotlight on a highly bioactive component

The properties of myrecetin were first explored in the late 18th century when it was isolated as yellow crystals from the extract of an Indian tree bark. Being of interest initially as a dye, myricetin is now used as a preserving agent in packaged foods to lengthen the shelf life of foods containing oils due to its ability to protect oily lipids from oxidation. That same bioactivity allows myrecetin to have anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer and anti-photoageing properties, with additional studies showing promise in protecting the central nervous system against diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. 15

For further reading, check out some of the Vitis vinifera studies and information referenced throughout the article or why not find out more about some of the other naturally effective griffin+row ingredients in our active ingredient series?


1. University of Maryland Medical Center, Complementary and Alternative Medicine Guide, Grape Seed, last reviewed 2015..

2. European Medicines Agency, Assessment Report on Vitis vinifera L., folium, 2010. .

3. Cosmetics Info Database.

4. Truth in Aging Ingredient Index.

5. Bagchi, D Free radicals and grape seed proanthocyanidin extract: importance in human health and disease prevention, Toxicology, 148, 2-3, 2000.

6. Al-Habib A Bactericidal effect of grapes seed extract on methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), J. Toxicol. Sci., 35 (3), 357-64, 2010.

7. MedFacts Natural Products Professional database, Grape Seed.

8. Garavaglia J Grape seed oil compounds: biological and chemical actions for health, Nutr. Metab. Insights, 9, 59-64, 2016.

9. How to make grape seed extract.

10. Nassiri-Asl, M Review of the pharmacological effects of Vitis vinifera grape and its bioactive compounds, Phytother. Res., 23, 1197-1204, 2009.

11. Lining Cai, M J Cancer chemopreventive activity of Resveratrol, a natural product derived from grapes, Science, 275, 218-220, 1997.

12. Pangeni, R Resveratrol: review on therapeutic potential and recent advances in drug delivery, Expert Opin. on Drug Deliv., 11, 8, 1285-1298, 2014.

13. Truth in Aging review, Alpha Hydroxy Acids and sunburn.

14. Cerovic, Z G The use of chlorophyll fluorescence excitation spectroscopy for the non-destructive in situ assessment of UV-absorbing compounds in leaves, Plant, Cell Environ., 25, 1663-1676, 2002.

15. Semwal, D K Myrecetin: a dietary molecule with diverse biological activities, Nutrients, 8 (2), 90, 2016.