Sulfites have gotten more and more attention in the past several years. At Wine Curations, we get asked many questions about them. There seems to be some confusion and even a couple of myths that should be sorted out. This is why we want to give you the facts to take the mystery out of sulfites.
First, what are sulfites? They chemical compounds that are also called sulfur dioxide. They are naturally found in black tea, peanuts, eggs and fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi. Sulfites are also added to many food and beverages as a preservative to slow spoilage. They are found in many common items like soft drinks, jellies, dried and pickled fruits and vegetables, pre-cut vegetables plus many cured meats.
In wine, sulfites naturally occur during the fermentation process. These are in very low levels. However, winemakers often add sulfites during the winemaking process to help maintain freshness, color and flavor while also protecting the wine against bacteria. In fact, sulfites are also both antimicrobial and antioxidant which makes it very important in slowing down the oxidation that turns wine into vinegar.
The issue with sulfites, even naturally occurring ones, is that some people are allergic. The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) estimates that 1% of the US population has an allergy to sulfites. This allergy can cause signs of sulfite sensitivities include nasal congestion, headaches, skin flush, bronchoconstriction, nausea, abdominal pain, and dizziness.
With technology today, winemakers do not need to use as much sulfur oxide as they use to. In the US, the legal limit on sulfites in wine is 350 parts per millimeter (ppm). Most wines average around 125 ppm. In natural or organic wines that do not add sulfites, the average is 10 to 20 ppm.
If you would like to have lower levels of sulfites, then stick to natural or organic wines. After that, dry red wines are your best bet with dry white wines being in the middle. The wines that tend to have the most sulfites are sweeter, white dessert wines.
The one comment that we hear the most about sulfites is that everyone says they cause headaches for them. People especially correlate these headaches to sulfites in red wine. While sulfites can cause headaches, it needs to be pointed out that as we already mentioned, white wine has more sulfites. Also, many everyday foods have more ppm’s than wine. These include pre-cut vegetables and dried fruits. The main cause of those wine headaches is more likely to be histamines and of course, the alcohol.
Our best advice is try more organic wines that are naturally lower in sulfites to see if that helps. If it does not, then try taking an antihistamine when you are drinking wine. Red wine is especially high in histamines. These are what your body produces if it has an allergic reaction. When you have a food or beverage with histamines, your body may show the same reactions which includes migraines, facial flushing and nasal congestion. If neither of these help, it may be too much alcohol so lower how much wine you are enjoying.
We hope everyone can safely enjoy their wine without fear of a headache!