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Myths about Sulfites and Wine

Let’s clear up some of the most common myths and misunderstandings about sulfites, wine, and headaches.

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS,
May 30, 2017
Episode #432

If drinking red wine gives you a headache, you’ve probably had someone tell you that sulfites are the likely culprit. Perhaps you’ve been advised to stick to white wine, organic wines, or wines made in Europe on the grounds that these will be lower in sulfites.

Let’s clear up some of the most common myths and misunderstandings about sulfites, wine, and headaches.

Sulfites in Wine

First, a little background: Sulphur dioxide (or SO2) is a chemical compound made up of sulfur and oxygen. It occurs naturally but can also be produced in a laboratory.  It’s used to preserve foods and beverages, which it does by acting as an antioxidant and antimicrobial.

Sulphur dioxide has been used in winemaking for thousands of years, ever since the ancient Romans discovered that it would keep their wine from turning into vinegar. To this day, winemakers use sulphur dioxide to preserve the flavor and freshness of wines.

By law, wines that contain more than 10 ppm (parts per million) sulfite must be labeled with the words “contains sulfites.”   There are also upper limits to how much sulfite a wine may contain but the regulations vary by region. In the European Union, wine may contain up to 210 ppm sulfites. In the U.S., the upper limit is 350 ppm.

Myth #1: Organic or bio-dynamic wines are sulfite free.

In order to be certified organic, a wine must not contain added sulfites. However, sulfites are produced naturally during the fermentation process as a by-product of yeast metabolism. Even though no sulfites are added, organic wine may contain between 10-40 ppm sulfites.

You may also see wines labeled as being made from organic grapes, which is not the same as organic wine. Wine made from organic grapes may contain up to 100 ppm sulfites.

If you do get a hold of wine made without sulfites, I don’t suggest keeping it in the cellar very long. Wine made without sulfites—especially white wine—is much more prone to oxidation and spoilage.

Myth #2: Red wine is higher in sulfites than white wine

Ironically, the exact opposite is likely to be true. Red wines tend to be higher in tannins than white wines. Tannins are polyphenols found in the skins, seeds, and stems of the grapes. They also act as antioxidants and preservatives so less sulfite is needed. 

In fact, while European regulations allow up to 210 ppm sulfites in white wine, the limit for red wine is only 160 ppm.

Other factors that affect how much sulfite is needed are the residual sugar and the acidity of the wine. Dryer wines with more acid will tend to be lower in sulfites. Sweet wines and dessert wines, on the other hand, tend to be quite high in sulfites.

Myth #3: Sulfites in wine cause headaches

The so-called “red wine headache” is definitely a real thing. But it’s probably not due to sulfites. For one thing, white wine is higher in sulfites than red wine but less likely to cause a headache. That suggests that it’s probably something else in red wine that’s responsible for the notorious red wine headache. Other candidates include histamines, tyramine, tannins, not to mention the alcohol itself!

See also: What is Histamine Intolerance? and Nutrition Tips for Headache Prevention

Which Foods Contain Sulfites?

A small percentage of the population (about 1%) are sensitive to sulfites--most of them are asthma sufferers. Reactions can include swelling, hives, asthma, and migraines. If you have a sulfite sensitivity, you probably want to avoid wine. But you’ll also want to steer clear of soda, candy, prepared soups, frozen juices, processed meats, potato chips, French fries and dried fruit, all of which contain much higher concentrations of sulfites than wine.

If you don’t have a sulfite sensitivity, there appears to be little reason to fear sulfites in otherwise healthy foods.  For example, you don’t have to settle for dried apricots that are tough and brown if you prefer the kind that are soft and orange.

If you have questions or comments about today's episode or a suggestion for a future show topic, post them below or on the Nutrition Diva Podcast Facebook page.  And be sure to subscribe to the Nutrition Diva podcast on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen, so you don't miss a single episode!

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