What’s the Deal With Sulfites? Myths and Truths Uncorked

If you spend a day wine tasting or an evening lounging at wine bar, you may overhear someone exclaim that they cannot drink red wine because the sulfites will induce a headache. You might even be that someone. However, science-minded imbibers know that this is not actually the case, for several reasons. The dreaded SO2 molecules are not, in fact, the hangover-inducing culprits many believe them to be. And even if they were, red wines would not be the ones which deserve to shoulder the blame!

sulfite in wine headaches

Image Credit: Fermentarium.com

It is true, some people do have a genuine sulfite sensitivity, but the resulting symptoms generally resemble an asthma attack rather than cranial discomfort. And the number of people who do experience this negative reaction is small–about 4% of the population in the United States. As one might expect, those who suffer from asthma are particularly at risk. Furthermore, white wines generally contain much higher sulfite levels than those of their red counterparts! So what is it that is causing those headaches, and what concerns should wine drinkers have about sulfites, if any?

White wines generally contain much higher sulfite levels than those of their red counterparts.

Sulfur dioxide is a chemical compound that acts as a preservative in wine. It stabilizes the wine, helping to keep the contents of the bottle fresh and lively, prevents oxidation and growth of bacteria (both of which are causes of wine spoilage), and in wines with residual sugar, a dose of it will inhibit the wine from re-fermenting in the bottle, causing what should be a still wine to become carbonated. Sulfites are actually a triple-threat! Unless you consume all of your wine within six months of bottling, a small amount of SO2 can be a lifesaver for that special bottle you’ve been holding onto for years for just the right occasion. There is of course, massive variation in the amount of sulfites present in different wines. Conventional wines often contain about 30-150 parts per millon (ppm), although the legal limit is much higher in some countries.

Do Organic Wines Also Have Sulfites?

Organic wines tend to contain minimal or no added sulfites. Sulfites are, however, a natural by-product of fermentation, so there really is no such thing as a completely sulfite-free wine. Winemakers are only required to include the words “contains sulfites” on their labels if the wine contains more than 10 ppm of SO2.

Am I Sulfite Sensitive?

If you’re not sure if you have a sulfite sensitivity, a great way to test it is by evaluating whether or not you have the same reaction to dried fruit. Dried apricots, unless you purchase their less-delicious sulfite-free cousins, actually contain as many or more sulfites than your average glass of wine! And it’s not just dried fruit. Just about anything you eat besides fresh produce could potentially contain sulfites!

Dried apricots actually contain as many or more sulfites than your average glass of wine!

So, if you’ve passed the apricot test but your headache remains, what could possibly be causing your malady? There are a few possibilities…

What Really Causes My Wine Headaches?

1. Tannin

This could explain the different reactions to red wine versus white wine. While most white wine contains little or no tannin, unless it is aged in oak barrels, reds wines often are chock-full of it. Tannin, which resides in the skins, seeds, and stems of grapes as well as the wood used to make oak barrels, is what gives red wine its color, structure, ageability, and that mouth-drying astringency that can sometimes make you feel as though you have just licked a wool sweater. Consumption of tannins can reduce serotonin levels in the brain, which can lead to migraines in those who are prone to them. A good way to test if you have a tannin sensitivity is to sip on some over-steeped black tea or eat a handful of walnuts. Both are naturally high in tannin, so if your consumption of them gives you a headache, tannin sensitivity is most likely the cause of your red-wine headaches.

2. Histamines

The same pesky nitrogen compounds that cause your spring hay fever are another byproduct of fermentation. And to add insult to injury, they also occur naturally in the skins of grapes. So for wines that receive extended skin-contact during vinification (so-called “orange” wines and rosés to a lesser degree, and reds to a much higher degree–especially deeper, darker reds), the level of histamines present in the final product will be accordingly high. To find out if histamines are causing your problem, pop an allergy pill about an hour before imbibing some red wine. If your usual symptoms don’t make an appearance, you have your answer.

3. Prostaglandins

If you didn’t pay close attention in biology class, you might not have heard of this lipid compounds that dwell within each of our bodies. These have many important functions, but can be all sorts of bad news when mixed with wine. Wine contains enzymes that suppress prostaglandin function, affecting the relaxation and contraction of smooth muscle cells in a way that leads to headaches. The bad news is that recent studies have shown that the presence of yeasts and alcohol may make matters worse. The good news is that there is a very easy fix for this one: an Advil, Ibuprofen, Tylenol, or Asprin taken about 30 minutes before drinking should prevent any potential issues. Just make sure you do this before you start drinking, not at the end of the night when you realize you’re going to be hung over at work in the morning. Taking certain medications after drinking can be hazardous to your health.

4. Drinking too much

This is just common sense! If you drink too much of any alcohol, you’re probably going to get a headache. As the late, great comedian Mitch Hedberg once said: “I like to drink red wine. This girl says ‘Doesn’t red wine give you a headache?’ ‘Yeah, eventually! But the first and the middle part are amazing.’ I’m not gonna stop doing something ’cause of what’s gonna happen at the end. ‘Mitch, you want an apple?’ ‘No, eventually it’ll be a core.'”

Some Final Tips

There are many links between wine and headaches, but for most people, sulfites are not one of them. If you are one of the unlucky few who have a genuine sulfite sensitivity, you’d be safest sticking to organic wines, which, despite containing some sulfites, generally contain very small amounts. Look for those that do not say “contains sulfites” on the label, as the sulfite content will be less than 10 ppm. For the rest of you, stock up on Claritin, Tylenol and unoaked white wine–and try to remember to pace yourself!