The infamous red wine headache, it is probably something you have heard discussed after an evening of dinner and drinks.

While many attribute wine headaches and allergies to sulfites, the truth is that sulfites are largely misunderstood and most likely not the cause of allergies, headaches, or other symptoms. What are sulfites? Are they truly the enemy? Let us explore what sulfites are and whether or not it is making people ill.

wine glass in vineyard

Sulfites

Sulfites are sulfur dioxide (SO2), a chemical compound composed of sulfur and oxygen. It is a legal preservative used predominantly in the wine and food industries because it contains antioxidants as well as anti-microbial and antibacterial properties. It can occur naturally but can also be produced in a lab. If you have ever had dried fruit or any processed food, you have consumed sulfites. Per government standards, wine that contains more than 10 parts per million (ppm) must be labeled “contains sulfites”. It is important to note that the number of sulfites in wine is considerably lower than the amount contained in most processed foods.

How are Sulfites Used in Wine?

Since the time of ancient Rome, sulfites have been used in winemaking as a means of preservation, slowing the chemical reactions that would cause a wine to brown and spoil. Romans would burn sulfuric candles in amphora (ancient clay pots used for storing wine and other goods) to prevent the wine from turning to vinegar. There is no way to avoid sulfites in wine-making as they are a natural by-product of the yeast metabolizing during fermentation. Even without SO2 added, wine will have sulfites.
wine toast
Can you avoid higher levels of sulfites by drinking white wine? Surprisingly, while many had previously believed red wine to have higher levels of SO2 due to the red wine headache myth, white wine actually has higher levels of sulfites. This is because red wine has more tannin which naturally preserves the wine. As a result, winemakers use less sulfite as a preservative when producing red wine. Since white wine has more sugar, more sulfites are added to slow fermentation.

Am I Allergic to Sulfites?

According to the FDA, less than 1% of the U.S. is sulfite-sensitive. If you do have a sulfite sensitivity, you are more likely to experience side effects eating highly processed food (think French fries, chips, juice, soy sauce) than you would be drinking wine as these foods contain more additives and preservatives including sulfites. Scientific research is inconclusive on the tie between headaches and sulfites. You are more likely to experience a headache due to the tannins, histamines, or alcohol in the wine. Additionally, drinking large amounts of alcohol can be dehydrating which would trigger a headache effect.

If your doctor has diagnosed you with a sulfite-sensitivity or you are still determined to avoid sulfites at all costs, there is a growing trend of “natural” and organic wines on the market where minimal amounts or no SO2 is added. When wine is labeled “no added sulfites” this means that no additional sulfites were added, but the wine may still contain naturally occurring sulfites less than 10 ppm.

As you can see, the red wine headache is a myth and there is no real way to avoid sulfites in wine. They occur naturally during the fermentation process and winemakers actually use more sulfites to produce white wine than they do red. Sulfites are also present in larger amounts in processed food. If you do believe you have a sulfite sensitivity, please consult your doctor or allergist for a professional diagnosis.