Sulfites and headaches
We’ve all heard it… “Do you have any wines without sulfites? They give me headaches.” This is when the sommelier mentally puts his or her palm to their face.
In the recent social-media-driven years, the word “sulfites” has become the new bad word in wine. But why? When did we become so focused on this one component in wine, treating it like a poison? It’s mentioned with an almost villainous undertone now, like some evil wizard is adding it to wine when no one is looking.
In reality, sulfites have been a known part of wine making for a thousand years. They are harmless to almost everyone and occur naturally in all wines. Yes… I said naturally in all wines.
What the hell is a sulfite and why is it in my wine?
Sulfites occur as part of the fermentation process, a natural byproduct of yeast metabolism during the conversion of sugar to alcohol. They are completely harmless to over 99% of all people.
In fact, the human body produces sulfites, a whole bunch of it, there’s already about 10 times more sulfites in you on a daily basis than a bottle of wine.
The thought of sulfites being a synthetic chemical added to wine is just a misguided fear. Winemakers might add additional small quantities near the end of fermentation to halt the process, but that’s the natural way to do it, like turning on the lights at the end of a dance party.
It’s also added during bottling as an antioxidant to help prevent spoilage. But, they only use what is needed to complete those stages, usually using amounts far within acceptable boundaries.
Sulfites do two things really well: they bond with oxygen molecules, keeping the wine from oxidizing into vinegar, and they push bacteria out of the wine to keep it from spoiling. Sulfites are like bouncers at the door of a bar, keeping the bad people out without ruining the party.
So, why the warning labels?
Good question. In 1987, the government stepped in and required warnings on anything containing sulfites. Here’s why…salad bars.
You’ve seen this at home when you cut up an apple, 20 minutes later it’s a lovely shade of brown and your kids won’t touch it. Well, at restaurants people weren’t eating the aging fruits and veggies either and that’s bad for business. The solution in the 1970’s and 80’s was to spray the produce with sulfites. Voila… no more brown produce!
However, restaurants were using up to 2,000 ppm (parts per million), which caused adverse reactions in several hundred people and cases were being reported to the FDA. So they banned the use on raw fruits and veggies and imposed warning labels on anything with sulfites over 10 ppm.
What about those scary reactions to sulfites?
Sulfites can cause an allergic reaction, but in less than 1% of the population and rarely headaches. The main group of people who could have a reaction are asthmatics, and the reactions are usually breathing problems, throat swelling and hives.
The government did make a good move by trying to warn those who could have a sensitivity. But the damage was done, sulfites now looked scary.
The vast majority of wines produced in the world usually fall into the 10-100 ppm range, they are all required to have the scary warning on the bottle. Add in the speed of the internet and social media, you now have the perfect storm of spreading false information like wildfire.
Ok, then why do I get headaches?
When defending sulfites, people commonly ask, “then why do I get headaches from red wine?” First of all, there’s usually twice as much sulfites in white wine as there are in red. If you get headaches from reds and not whites, then it’s definitely not a sulfite reaction.
Secondly, there are a whole host of other natural components in red wine which can cause a headache – tannins and histamines being the main ones. Red wine contains about 30 times more histamines than white wine and, if your body has an intolerance to histamines, the number one symptom of an intolerance is… you guessed it, headaches!
However, the most common culprit is likely a combination of two things no one ever likes to admit to: dehydration and too much alcohol. So, there’s a good chance your friend who swears they’re allergic to sulfites, and announces it ever-so-confidently, is likely just suffering from downing 4 glasses of cab sauv without drinking any water. Hydrate you newb!
Most of the things you eat contain sulfites
Bad news for the self-diagnosed sulfite sufferers. Most of the things you enjoy in life contain sulfites, and often in quantities far, FAR greater than wine.
Here’s the short list:
Soda, canned fruits, frozen vegetables, fruit juice, fruit fillings, fruit syrup, jams and jellies, dried fruit, cereal, cornstarch, crackers, french fries, tomato paste, horseradish, ketchup, mustard, relish, vinegar, lemon juice, granola bars, deli meats, hot dogs, sausages, salad dressing, gravy, canned soup, shellfish, soy products, gelatin, molasses, and even pharmaceuticals and medications (stopping to catch my breath).
They’re seriously in everything! Why? Because it occurs naturally and it’s an antioxidant which helps prevent spoilage. Eat just a small handful of dried apricots or a plate of fries and you’ve already ingested about 20 times more sulfites than a glass of good cab sauv.
So, the next time your french-fry-loving friend diagnoses themselves and half the bar crowd with sulfite headaches, tell them to get off of their phone and drink a glass of water.
Micah Sampson is a Certified Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers who recently launched his own wine brand: Llama Llama Wines! Approachable, California wines made with love in Napa Valley.
The Wine Bible, 2nd Edition by Karen MacNeil, (2015)