Myth or Matter-Of-Fact: Is This Causing Your Wine Headaches?

Myth or Matter-Of-Fact: Is This Causing Your Wine Headaches?

If there’s one question we get asked more than any other, it’s about sulfites in wine. What are they and what purpose do they serve in our wines? Check out this Q&A and “MythBusters” blog with our Wine Whisperer, Jerry Greenfield. We bet you’ll learn a thing or two!

Q: What Are Sulfites?
A: Chemically, it’s sulfur dioxide (SO2), a preservative widely used in winemaking (and most food industries.) It has antioxidant and antibacterial properties, which prevent oxidization and maintain a wine’s freshness.

Q: Are Sulfites Harmful?
A: Consumption of sulfites is generally harmless unless you suffer from severe asthma or do not have the enzymes necessary to break down sulfites in your body. There are some few people who have a genuine allergy to sulfites, and these are often linked with asthma. The FDA estimates that less than 1% of the U.S. population is sulfite-sensitive, so it is relatively rare.
If you do have a sulfite allergy (which can develop over the course of your life) it is more likely to reveal itself through a food other than wine, given that many foods have higher levels of sulfites than wine. For example, dried fruits, such as apricots, prunes, and raisins, contain extremely high levels of sulfites.

Q: How Much Sulfites Are in Wine?
A: The amount of sulfites that a wine can contain is highly regulated around the world. Any wine containing more than 10 parts per million (ppm) of sulfur dioxide must affix to the label “contains sulfites.” If the label does NOT read “contains sulfites,” there is less than 10 ppm in the wine.

Myth #1: Sulfites in wine cause headaches.
Medical research is not definitive on the relationship between sulfites and headaches. There are many other compounds in wine such as histamines and tannins that are more likely connected to the headache effect (not to mention alcohol!)

Myth #2: Red wine has extra sulfites, thus causes headaches.
The fact that red wines typically contain fewer sulfites may seem surprising to people who blame sulfites for their red wine headaches! Quite similar levels apply in the U.S., Australia and around the world.

Q: Why do red wines have fewer sulfites?
A: They contain tannin, which is a stabilizing agent, and almost all red wines go through a process called malolactic fermentation. Therefore, less sulfur dioxide is needed to protect and preserve the wine during winemaking and maturation.

Myth #3: Wine should be avoided because it contains sulfites.
Another surprising fact is that wine contains about ten times fewer sulfites than most dried fruits, which can have levels up to 1000 ppm. So, if you regularly eat dried fruit and do not have any adverse reaction you are probably not allergic to sulfites.

While the figures I have stated are maximum SO2 levels, discussions with many winemakers over the years would lead me to believe that in practice, sulfite levels are generally well below the maximum permitted limits.

Myth #4: Sulfites are inherently unnatural.
Apart from the potential allergic reaction, many people are against sulfites because they feel they are an unnatural addition when making wine. While that view is valid, it is important to remember that sulfites are also a natural by-product of the yeast metabolism during fermentation. So even if you do not add any additional SO2, your wine will still contain sulfites.

It’s our hope that these blogs give you some information you can use during your wine socials or just refer to while you’re exploring the world of wine each month. If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions for future blogs or videos, please email me at winewhisperer@directcellars.com. I’d love to hear from you.

Jerry Greenfield is The Wine Whisperer, an experienced public speaker and wine educator.

3 Replies to “Myth or Matter-Of-Fact: Is This Causing Your Wine Headaches?”

  1. Thank you, Jerry. I found this very informative and useful! Having large quantities of anything can tend to make our bodies react unkindly, and there will be natural sugar content in wine as well. I found the red still seemed to be better for my digestion and headaches, as long as I didn’t consume too much at once 🙂

  2. Hi Jerry, I am a Brand Partner with Direct Cellars and really enjoy the surprise wines we get each month. Thank you for your educating us. I have a question. I have read about in places that say wine has sugar added, plus other chemicals, is this true? And are we stil connected to Artisan Wineries? Thank you,
    Mike Moffett

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