Sulfites: Headaches & Salad Bars!
By Jimmy Quaile, Certified Sommelier
First, a little background: Sulphur dioxide (aka, Sulfites) is a chemical compound made up of sulfur and oxygen. It occurs naturally but can also be produced in a laboratory. Measured in parts per million (ppm), it has been used for thousands of years as an antioxidant and antimicrobial to preserve foods and beverages. As far back as the 8th Century BC, ancient Greeks who used sulfur to fumigate dwellings and ships noticed that food lasted longer in the treated room. In wine it can stop fermentation at a specific time, act as a preservative and prevent bacteria and oxidation. In fact, since sulfur dioxide is a natural by-product of yeast, the only way to produce a truly sulfite-free wine is to put it through chemical manipulations to strip the naturally occurring sulfur out of the wine. Wine from Italy, France, Argentina, Spain, Chile ALL contain sulfites. The only difference is, those countries do not require a warning label for their wines.
So why does the U.S. require the warning on the bottle? Because of the salad bar! In 1970s and 1980s the salad bar gained popularity and the fruits and vegetables were routinely sprayed with high amount of sulfites – sometimes up to 2,000 ppm to prevent the produce from wilting and turning brown (most wines contain less than 100 ppm). The FDA received a few hundred complaints from people having adverse reactions which was enough for Strom Thurmond, a fiercely anti-alcohol senator from South Carolina to make the “Contains Sulfites” warning a part of the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, a continuation of the “War on Drugs”. Consumers have been confused ever since with the general method of thinking “if there’s a warning on a label…it has to be bad!” To be clear, there are certainly people who are indeed allergic to the compound – 0.4 percent of the population. So why do some people get a headache when they drink red wine? The latest research suggests histamines are the main reason. Food and drinks that have been aged, such as aged meats and red wines, cause our body to release histamines and can create allergy-type symptoms for some people. Taking an antihistamine an hour before drinking may reduce or solve the problem. If you still believe that that sulfites in wine give you a headache, try a little experiment: eat some dried apricots. If you do not get a headache, sulfites are not the culprit. A two ounce portion of dried apricots have TEN TIMES more sulfites than one glass of wine. Still not convinced? Try cookies, crackers, pizza crust, flour tortillas, pickles, salad dressings, olives, vinegar, shrimp, scallops, sugar (brown and white), fruit juice, deli meat and even prescription pills. The point is; There is no medical research data showing that sulfites cause headaches. Note: Organic wine does not mean sulfite free wine. It means there were no ADDED sulfites.
A two ounce portion of dried apricots has TEN TIMES more sulfites than one glass of wine!
For argument’s sake, let’s say you are one of the 0.4 percent who have a sulfite allergy but want to drink wine. Is there a DIY hack that can remove sulfites from a wine after it’s in the bottle? It turns out there is! And it’s probably in your bathroom cabinet right now: hydrogen peroxide. The theory is that a few drops of H2O2 in your wine will turn sulfite into hydrogen sulfate thereby eliminating them altogether. Have I tried it? No. I don’t seem to get headaches from wine …unless I drink too much. In which case, I also have Aspirin in my bathroom cabinet.
“Organic” – Wines made with organically grown grapes; all additives (fining agents, yeast, etc) are organic, no GMO’s (or other prohibited ingredients) are allowed. It cannot have any added sulfites. However, naturally occurring sulfites are allowed but cannot exceed 20 parts per million. Organic does not mean a wine is vegan.
“Made with Organically Grown Grapes ” – Sulfites may be added, however, they cannot exceed 100 parts per million.
“Biodynamic” – Incorporates farming practices and ideas initiated by Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner in which the vineyard is treated as an entire ecosystem and takes into account astrological influences and lunar cycles. Certified biodynamic wines may contain sulfites up to 100 ppm.
“Sustainable” – As the name suggests, winemakers use parts of organic and biodynamic winemaking while trying to be environmentally and socially responsible.
“Natural” – Wine made using grapes that are grown organically, then taken into the cellar. In theory, although a very small amount of sulfur dioxide is sometimes added, nothing is added and nothing is taken away,
White wines contain more sulfites than red wines and sweet wines contain more sulfites than dry wines.
The U.S. government regulates the term “organic,” but “sustainable”, “biodynamic” and “natural” have no legal definitions.