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Wine and sulfites: are they causing your headaches, allergies or asthma symptoms?

wines and sulfitesWill wine and sulfites be the new food thing to avoid, next to gluten or nuts? Some say the sulfites in wine are what causes that dreaded wine hangover headache. Others disagree, saying it’s just the alcohol. What’s the truth about wine and sulfites, and what does that mean especially if you have allergies, asthma or chronic symptoms?

Defining sulfites

“Sulfites” refers to a group of sulfur compounds that are produced during fermentation and used to help reduce bacteria and other microbes (draxe.com). Makers in the food industry often use a sulfite called sulfur dioxide (SO2) as a preservative and for its antioxidant and antibacterial properties. SO2 helps prevent oxidization while maintaining the freshness of our so-loved wine.

Other commonly used sulfites you’ll see in product ingredients include potassium bisulfite, potassium metabisulfite, sodium bisulfite, sodium metabisulfite or sodium sulfite.

But sulfites also occur naturally. Grapes and other plants, including onions and garlic, naturally contain sulfites in their skins, and fermented foods contain low levels of sulfites.

The legal limit of sulfites is 300ppm (parts per million), and most conventional wines contain levels between 50 and 100mg/L, well within the legal limits.

In order for wine or any food to be labeled “sulfite-free”, a product must have 10mg/L or less sulfite composition, but it may still contain the very low levels of sulfites – like in the case of wines, due to fermentation.

How wine and sulfites might trigger your headaches, asthma and allergy woes

First, let’s note that with any allergy, symptoms may vary from one individual to another. Symptoms such as skin irritations, sudden stomach pain, vomiting, difficulty swallowing or breathing and dizziness are more obvious. But if you have a sensitivity (not full-blown allergy), you might have less severe skin irritations, gradual congestion, drowsiness, or just about any other symptom on this food journal.

Food and Drug Administration research suggests that only about 1% of people are sensitive to sulfites. Other studies show that 3 to 10% of people with asthma have a sensitivity to sulfites. Still other research supports the notion that the tyramine, histamine and of course, alcohol, in wine contribute to your headaches rather than the sulfites.

That said, it took years to develop research that backs up allergies to gluten and nuts, and even now, not everyone acknowledges those possibilities. What’s more reliable than research though, is how sulfites or any ingredient or food make you feel. Track and record any reactions to drinks and food in a food journal. If you see a negative pattern from sulfite-containing foods, consider yourself sensitive to sulfites and adjust accordingly!

Avoiding sulfites

If you do detect a sulfite sensitivity or allergy and need to make adjustments, look further than your wine stash.

Because sulfites lengthen the shelf-life of foods and drinks, you will also find them in lots of drinks, including beer and juices, as well as in processed foods, such as crackers, potato chips, dried fruit, deli or cured meats, jams, jellies and even coconut flakes.

In fact, many of these foods contain 10 times more sulfites than the average wine! Buy organic. Shop for fresh produce. Stay on the perimeter of your grocery store, away from the packaged foods.

In addition to foods, you’ll find sulfites in many asthma and injectable medications, as well as eye drops. Review this article for a list of the sulfite-containing products.

But back to wine. If you really hate to part with your long-loved wines (and sulfites):

  • Try adding a product that will remove the sulfites and allow the wine to oxidize before you drink it.
  • Choose sulfite-free wines, understanding that while this means no sulfites were added, they will still naturally contain low levels of sulfites due to fermentation.
  • Also scour labels of non-organic wines for other harmful ingredients such as pesticide-laden yeast, added sugar, mold, food dyes and Velcorin (Dimethyldicarbonate), a chemical added to some wines and many fruit juices.

Lastly, remember these facts if you want to enjoy wine more wisely.

  • All wines have sulfites but sweet white wines have the most. White wine tends to have higher sulfites because red wine is preserved partially by natural tannins.
  • However, red wines are high in histamine and can cause allergy/sinus headaches. Try sauvignon blanc instead, if histamine is your trigger.
  • If bananas and avocados bother you, tyramine might be your trigger. Try chardonnay or sauvignon blanc, which are lower in tyramine.
  • If migraines tend to be an issue, try a white pinot gris or red pinot noir, which are lower in tannins (also a trigger found in chocolate; read more).

Cheers to eating and drinking – with or without wine and sulfites – for better health!


*This blog is intended for use as a source of information and should not be used as a substitute for professional medical care or advice.