Whilst working in a wine shop, I often had customers telling me they were allergic to sulphites in wine. Headaches and migraines were common complaints. With labelling laws now in force, meaning you have to state ‘Contains Sulphites’ on the label, increased awareness has caused many to blame their wine headaches on these sulphites. But how much sulphites are really in wine and how can it affect you?
What are sulphites?
Sulphites are a group of sulphur compounds, including the gas Sulphur Dioxide, which are used as a preservative in food and drinks. Sulphur Dioxide and other sulphur compounds are often used throughout the wine making process and have (according to some sources) been used since the Egyptian times. It’s anti-bacterial and anti-oxidative properties help to keep the wine fresh in the bottle. Without it, most wines would barely last a year on the shelf.
What many people don’t realise is that sulphite levels are actually much higher in many foods including dried fruits, jams, fruit juices and pickled foods. For example 50g of dried apricots have roughly fives times more sulphur than a glass of wine.
Are they bad for you?
For most of us, no. However a small percentage of the population (around 1%) are allergic to sulphites, especially those who suffer from asthma. Adverse reactions are usually respiratory, causing a runny nose, wheezing and a sore head. If you can eat a bag of dried apricots quite happily then it is unlikely you are allergic to them.
Many people complain of a red wine headache, however red wine usually has less sulphites added than white and rose wine because of the tannins present which help preserve the wine. Sweet wines actually get the largest dosage of Sulphur, so if you are allergic then definitely stay away from these. Normally the less expensive the wine, the most sulphites it contains.
Can you get Sulphur free wine?
Technically there is no such thing as a Sulphur free wine as SO2 is produced naturally in the wine making process as a by-product of fermentation. There are very few wines that are made without some use of Sulphur Dioxide. You can find some low-sulphur wine which are made with no or low additions, however the problem with these ‘natural’ wines is that they spoil more easily and generally have a shorter shelf life. They are often described as tasting a bit 'funky' although there are beautiful examples made and as the Natural wine movement is growing more and more of these natural beauties will become available.
Bottle fermented sparkling wines contain low sulphur because the bubbles inside help reduce oxidation and less Sulphur Dioxide is required. Bottle fermented sparkling wines include Champagne and Cava, but not Prosecco. So if you are sensitive, then what a good reason to drink Champagne all the time!
So apart from the alcohol in wine, is there anything else that contributes to your morning after headache. There has been some evidence that other compounds such as histamines and tannins are responsible, however we will save that science for another blog post!
By Emma Laval