Does wine give you a headache? Don't blame the sulfites. Find out what problems sulfites do (and don't) cause and whether you need to avoid them.
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.
What are sulfites?
First, a little background: Sulphur dioxide (or SO2) is a chemical compound made up of sulfur and oxygen. It occurs naturally in foods but it can also be produced in a laboratory.
Sulfite has also been used in winemaking for thousands of years, ever since the ancient Romans discovered that it would keep their wine from turning into vinegar.
Sulfite is used to preserve foods and beverages, which it does by acting as an antioxidant and antimicrobial. They’re commonly used to preserve the color and texture of dried fruits. Sulfite has also 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.
What causes bad reactions to sulfite?
Sulfites don’t cause problems for the vast majority of people, but about one in every hundred people is sensitive or allergic to them. If you have asthma, your chances of sulfite sensitivity are quite a bit higher, about one in ten.
The most common reaction to sulfites is no reaction at all, but for those who are sensitive to them, consuming sulfites can cause breathing difficulties.
The most common reaction to sulfites is something like an asthma attack. Well, actually the most common reaction to sulfites is no reaction at all. But for those who are sensitive to them, consuming sulfites can cause breathing difficulties and, less commonly, hives or other allergy-like symptoms. These reactions can range from so mild you might not even notice them to quite severe.
Sulfites in wine
People who are sensitive to sulfites are well advised to steer clear of wine. But there are a ton of misunderstandings and myths about sulfites in wine. Let’s see if we can clear some of this up.
Myth #1: Organic or bio-dynamic wines are sulfite free
Almost all vintners add sulfites to wine to control bacterial growth. In the U.S., wines that are certified organic must not contain any added sulfites. However, sulfites are produced naturally during the fermentation process as a by-product of yeast metabolism. In fact, all wines contain sulfites.
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.
All wines contain sulfites.
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 ahold 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.
Red wines tend to be higher in tannins than white wines.
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. Drier 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.
While something in red wine does seem to cause headaches in certain people, it is probably not the sulfites.
While something in red wine does seem to cause headaches in certain people, it is probably not the sulfites. (If it were, white wine would be just as bad.). 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!
Myth #4: European wines are lower in sulfites than U.S. produced wines
Wines sold in the U.S. and Australia carry warnings about sulfites. Up until recently, wines sold in Europe did not, leading many consumers to conclude that European wines are made without sulfites. In fact, European wines on average have the same sulfite levels as wines in the U.S.
In both Europe and the U.S., the average glass of wine contains about 10 mg of sulfites.
In both Europe and the U.S., the average glass of wine contains about 10 mg of sulfites—about the same as in a handful of dried apricots. And here’s an interesting piece of trivia: your own cells produce about a hundred times that just in the course of their normal metabolic activities. Even if you have a sulfite sensitivity, however, the sulfites produced in your own cells will not trigger a reaction.
Which foods contain sulfites?
If you’re sensitive to sulfites, 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. And if you’re very sensitive, you may also need to avoid foods like shrimp, maple syrup, and mushrooms, which have only moderate amounts of sulfites.
If you’re not allergic or sensitive to them, sulfites are unlikely to do you any harm.
New regulations have made it a little easier to avoid sulfites. For example, restaurants used to treat the raw vegetables in salad bars with sulfites to keep them looking fresh. There’d be nothing to warn sulfite-sensitive diners; and servers, if asked, were not always reliable sources of information. Now, restaurants and grocery stores can no longer add sulfites to fresh foods. Packaged foods that contain sulfites above a certain low threshold must include that information on the label.
However, if you don’t have a sensitivity, there doesn’t seem to be much reason to worry about sulfites in foods or wines. According to the FDA, sulfites are “not teratogenic, mutagenic, or carcinogenic.” That means they don’t cause cancer or birth defects. If you’re not allergic or sensitive to them, they are unlikely to do you any harm. So, if like your dried apricots soft and orange instead of stiff and brown, go for it!