The health benefits of red wine seem to grow by the day, but for some people, a glass of red wine is an invitation to a terrible headache. Many people erroneously associate such headaches with sulfites in red wine.
Ever since the Food and Drug Administration started requiring wine manufacturers to disclose the presence of sulfites on the wine labels, there has been a false sense of alarm that the labeling was designed to warm consumers who suffer from Red Wine Headaches or RWH. Although a small percentage of the population does suffer from allergic reactions from sulfites, headaches are not a common symptom of a sulfite allergy. It is likely that red wine headache (an official syndrome) is caused by something else in red wine, however, little is know about the cause.
What are sulfites?
Sulfites (sulphur dioxide, or SO2) were approved as a food additive in the United States in the 1800s. Historically, the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used sulfites to sterilize wine barrels and amphorae. Used for their preservative ability, sulfites control microbial growth by inhibiting or killing bacteria or wild yeast. This process encourages the rapid and clean fermentation of wine grapes.
What many people don’t realize is that sulfites are a natural by-product of yeast fermentation of grape skins. Naturally occurring sulfites are generated in amounts ranging from 6 to 40 parts per million (ppm). Even organic wines contain a small level of sulfites. Totally sulfite-free wines are an accident of nature; but wines low in sulfites or free of added sulfites do exist.
Regulation of Sulfites
On January 1,1987 the FDA passed a law requiring domestic wines, beers and spirits containing more than 10 parts per million of sulfites must bear a “contains sulfites” warning label. This is despite the fact that sulfites are on the FDAs "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS) list of food additives. Wines that contain less than 10 ppm sulfites are not required to put "Contains Sulfites" on their labels; however, this does not mean the wine is "sulfite-free”. As established earlier, all wines naturally contain some sulfites. Although the legal limit in wine is 350 ppm, most wines with added sulfites contain less, generally 25-150 ppm.
Why are Sulfites added to wine?
Bacteria and wild yeasts on the grape skins contaminate freshly pressed grape juice, causing it to spoil. Adding sulfites to wine (both red and white) not only inhibits the growth of molds and bacteria, but it also stops oxidation (browning) and preserves the wine's natural flavor. Without adding sulfites, the wine would spoil in months and become vinegar. For this reason, wines that do not have any added sulfites should be consumed within 18 months of bottling.
Sulfites sensitivity symptoms
The FDA estimates that one out of a hundred people (less than one percent) in the United States is sulfite-sensitive, and that 5 percent of those people are asthmatic. Symptoms can range from being mild to serious, the most common being skin rash accompanied by redness, hives, itching, flushing, tingling and swelling. Symptoms in asthmatic patients tend to be more severe.
What many people don’t realize is that sulfite levels in most wines are lower than many common foods. Some examples include: fruit juices, dried fruits, fruit concentrates, syrups, jams, pizza dough, frozen potatoes, as well as in many prescription drugs. Many who believe that they have a reaction to sulfites in red wine, don’t realize that they are consuming sulfites in these foods at much higher levels. Another misconception is that white wine does not contain sulfites. In truth, many sweet white wines can contain more sulfites than red.
While a small percentage of the people do have adverse reactions to sulfites, many wine drinkers have been misled into thinking sulfites in wine are the cause of headaches. The common complaint of a headache is not associated with sulfites, added or naturally produced, in wine, but is more likely connected to some other ingredient in red wine.
Other possible causes of the RWH
RWH is a bad headache often accompanied by nausea and flushing that occurs in many people after drinking even a single glass of red wine. This syndrome can sometimes develop within 15 minutes of consumption of the wine.
No one knows for certain why RWH occurs, but what is known is that sulfites are not the cause. It is possible that RWH is a combination of several factors.
Tannins are the flavonoids in wine that give its degree of mouth-drying bitterness one tastes. For those people who are susceptible to migraines, the tannins in red wine may be the cause for headaches due to the release of serotonin. High levels of serotonin can cause headaches. Tannins are also found in foods like tea, chocolate and soy.
RWH could be caused by the release of prostaglandins, which some people are not able to metabolize.
It has also been postulated that RWH could be caused by a strain of yeast or bacteria found in red wine. It is also possible that several factors can contribute to RWH.
If you are sensitive to sulfites you will need to go for dry red wines, followed by dry white wines as the middle ground choice. It is also suggested that you experiment with small quantities of different wines to find the right fit for you. Aspirin may be helpful if taken before drinking wine.
Another important thing to remember, don’t get confused between RWH and the terrible headache that strikes the morning after overindulging - that is called a “hangover”.
Myths about sulfites in wine:
- Sulfite-Free Wine is a misnomer, since sulfites occur normally in the wine making process.
- Organic wines do contains sulfites.
- White wines contain sulfites. Fruitier white wines contain more than most red wines.
- European wines contain sulfites (around 80 mg/L), but not all countries are required to add a “contains sulfite’ warning (in Australia a label is required indicating "Preservative 220").
- An allergic to sulfites in red wine does not typically result in a headache.
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Andrew L. Waterhouse, Sulfites in Wine, March 2007, http://waterhouse.ucdavis.edu/winecomp/so2.htm
Red Wine Headache vs. Sulfite Allergy, http://www.beekmanwine.com/prevtopbd.htm
Ruth Papazian, Sulfites: Safe for Most, Dangerous for Some, http://www.fda.gov/fdac/features/096_sulf.html