Sulfites have garnered quite the unflattering reputation in recent years – but do they deserve it? And what exactly are they anyway? Let’s break it down.
What are Sulfites and Why are They Used?
Sulfites are naturally occurring compounds that contain sulfur and oxygen. A by-product of the fermentation process, they have been used for centuries in winemaking due to their antioxidant and antimicrobial properties. The primary purpose of adding sulfites to wine is to prevent oxidation and microbial spoilage, which can lead to off-flavors, aromas, and a shorter shelf life. Sulfites help maintain the wine’s color, flavor, and overall quality over time, which is especially important for wines meant to be aged.
Misconceptions and Health Concerns
Sulfites have been wrongly painted as a major cause of wine-related headaches and allergic reactions. And while it’s true that a small percentage of people may be sensitive to sulfites, the actual number is quite low. In fact, only about 1% of the population is estimated to have a true sulfite allergy, and those individuals often experience asthma-like symptoms when exposed to high levels of sulfites.
The suggestion that sulfites are responsible for causing wine headaches is more complex. Research indicates that compounds other than sulfites, like histamines, tyramine, and tannins, could be what’s behind those headaches.It’s also worth noting that many people attribute sulfite headaches to red winevarieties, when in fact white wines typically contain more sulfites than reds –as sulfite levels are determined by the winemaking process and the amount of sugar a wine contains.
Furthermore, the alcohol content itself, your hydration level when you drink, and individual sensitivities to certain components of a wine are the most likely culprit for that dreaded headache.
If Sulfites Are Safe, Why Are They Regulated?
To address concerns about sulfite sensitivity, regulations require that wines containing more than 10 parts per million (ppm) of sulfites must be labeled with the statement “Contains Sulfites.” This warning helps individuals who are sensitive to sulfites make informed choices about the products they consume. However, it’s important to note that many wines have sulfite levels well below this threshold.
Should You Be Concerned?
For the majority of wine drinkers, sulfites are not a cause for concern. The levels of sulfites typically found in wine are considered safe for consumption, even for those without any known sensitivities. Many everyday foods including dried fruits, pickles,deli meats, and even some medications, contain higher levels of sulfites than most wines. (Seriously, anything ultra processed is going to contain them.) As wine generally contains 10 times fewer sulfites than the same volume of dried fruit, a good way to test your sensitivity is to eat a cup of dried apricots. If you don’t get a headache from those, you won’t get one from the sulfites in wine either.
If you do experience symptoms like headaches or allergic reactions after drinking wine, it’s important to consult a healthcare professional to determine the root cause. It’s unlikely that sulfites are solely responsible for these symptoms, andyour doctor can help identify any underlying allergies.
To Drink, or Not to Drink?
Sulfites are an integral part of winemaking that help preserve the quality and character of wines we enjoy. While there are individuals who are sensitive to sulfites, the vast majority of wine consumers can continue to indulge in their favorite bottles without worry.
There are also many varieties of wine that are “low sulfite” or “sulfite free” – so when in doubt, check your labels and make a decision that feels best for you. As with most things in life, moderation is key, and being mindful of your body’s reactions to different foods and beverages is always a smart move.