Among the many myths surrounding wine, a few are more established than the erroneous idea that many folks are allergic to sulfites. This belief is most often fueled by the headaches and/or flushing that some drinkers experience after a few sips.
The notion that there’s something nefarious about sulfites is in part promoted by the legally mandated wine label warning: “Contains Sulfites”. Although this warning was first federally mandated back in 1988 for wines that contain above 10 parts per million (ppm) of SO2, the truth is that wines have always contained sulfites. It is not only a naturally occurring by-product of fermentation but also a vital additive that has been used for centuries in the interest of protecting the wines from oxidation and spoilage. The genesis of this labeling mandate started after reports of some people, mostly asthmatics, who developed certain adverse reactions after eating at salad bars back in the late 70’s and early 80’s. As it turned out, these poor devils were chowing on foods that had been sprayed with up to 2,000 parts per million (PPM) of sulfites to prevent the food from turning brown! In the EU, and pretty much in America, the maximum levels of SO2 allowed are 160 ppm for reds and 210 ppm for whites. Sweet wines are allowed up to 400 ppm. Why the different levels? That is because reds have tannins and this substance helps stabilize the wines to the extent that less SO2 is needed. Therefore, it does not make sense to drink whites over reds to avoid the ostensible sulfite side effects.
In fact, sulfites are still in many foods and in vastly larger concentrations than in wine. For instance, dry fruits, beer, flour tortillas, shrimp, and pickles, to name a few, contain quite a bit of the stuff...sometimes 10 times the amount you would find in wine! So, if you have not keeled over from eating these, chances are that you are not part of that 1% of the population that the FDA has identified as having sulfite sensitivity.
Notwithstanding that sulfites are a natural by products of yeast fermentation, many see their addition as an unnatural process in wine making. For this reason, many choose to drink “organic wines”. Although the definition of organic wines can vary from country to country, the USDA regulations state that these wines must be made from organic grapes and sulfites cannot be added. It specifies that even naturally occurring sulfites must be under 10 parts per million. Finally, organic doesn’t imply that the wine doesn’t have other additives. Therefore, winemakers that use organic wines but use some SO2 cannot call their wines “organic” but instead “Made with Organic Grapes”. And what about “Natural Wines”? Since there’s no uniform definition of “natural wine”, the winemaker can use a bit of sulfites and still be called “natural”.
So, what’s causing the headaches and the flushing? There is some evidence that certain substances such as glycoproteins can cause the release of histamines and these in turn unleash other reactions that include the headaches and the flushing. But let’s not kid ourselves. Sometimes the headaches come about after you finish that whole bottle by yourself!
Lorenzo, the wine guy
Friends, food, and wine...I'm happy there.