What are Sulfites and Should I be Avoiding Them?
Studies indicate that up to 75% of wine drinkers report adverse reactions to drinking wine. Despite these significantly high numbers there still seems to be a fair amount of confusion behind the cause of these negative reactions. Sulfites are often blamed for many of the frustrating symptoms , but what are they and are they the real culprit?
Let’s take a closer look at sulfites and several other factors that may be causing or contributing to symptoms like headaches, redness in the face, skin rashes, chest tightness, etc…
What are Sulfites?
Sulfites are naturally present in wines and many other foods and can be added as preservatives. Dried fruits, canned foods and chips are just a few of the many foods that sulfites can be found in. In wine, naturally occurring sulfites are created during the fermentation process when sulphur dioxide and water mix. Extra Sulfites are then added to maintain freshness and prevent bacteria growth. What does that all mean?
Basically, NO wine is completely sulfite-free. If you see bottles of wine labeled “Sulfite-Free” what this actually means is that no additional Sulfites have been added to the wine. Now, here is where the issue gets a little more complex. Because the Sulfites play such a critical role in preservation, wines that do not have added sulfites tend to have a harsher taste and a shelf-life of about a year maximum. They definitely do not age well and most people report that they don’t taste all that great either.
Back to the big question: Are sulfites actually bad for you? While scouring the internet for reliable sources on this topic it was hard to find anything truly concrete and grounded in trustworthy studies….BUT here is what I was able to find so far…
Factors Causing or Contributing to Adverse Reactions When Drinking Wine
Anywhere from 1-10% of the population can have sulfite-sensitivity. Again, it was difficult to find a more precise number. It has also been reported that sulfites are more likely to affect people with asthma and other respiratory issues.
Symptoms of sulfite-sensitivity can include: hives, headaches, itching, sneezing, coughing, swelling, as well as gastrointestinal distress. Symptoms can appear anywhere from the moment the bottle is opened to 30 minutes after your first sip.
Remember, if you have a sulfite-sensitivity then other foods like dried fruits, trail mix, vegetable juices, etc. may also be causing similar reactions. Try to take note of how you feel when you eat foods high in sulfites. If you are only experiencing symptoms when you drink wine then they may be caused by other factors. Check out this article for a list of foods containing sulfites and more information on sulfite-sensitivity (What is Sulfite-Sensitivity?)
But sulfites might not be the only factor in that pounding headache you find yourself battling after just one glass of wine.
Alcohol quickly dehydrates the body: it “...suppresses your body's antidiuretic hormone that sends fluid back into your body while simultaneously acting as a diuretic, causing water to be flushed out of your system much more rapidly than normal.”
Even a relatively well-hydrated person can quickly lose this water when drinking any alcoholic beverage, but most people are actually dehydrated to some extent on a daily basis. The precursory dehydration paired with alcohol just makes the onset of the symptoms (e.g. headaches) that much swifter.
Histamines are compounds released by cells in response to injury in allergic and inflammatory reactions. These histamines are found in the skins of grapes. Red wine specifically ferments with the skins of the grapes creating a higher histamine content than white wine. “White wine typically contains between 3 to 120 micrograms of histamine per glass, while red wine contains between 60 and 3,800 micrograms of histamine per glass.”
High levels of histamines in the blood can lead to adverse reactions like inflammation in the nose, lungs and skin (can be the cause of redness in the face), trouble breathing, chest tightness, itchy eyes, itchy throat, etc…
It appears that there are more sensitivities associated with the histamines in wine rather than the sulfites. That’s not to say that there isn’t a fair number of people who are sensitive to the sulfites, but more likely than not it is the histamines that are causing you problems.
In an attempt to be as thorough as possible I wanted to mention tannins as well. “Tannins are the flavonoids in wine that create a dry effect and taste. They are found in skins, seeds and stems. Red wine is made with skins, so it is higher in tannin content than white.” Tannis can cause blood vessels to open wider which can sometimes lead to headaches.
However, tannins are also present in tea, chocolate and soy, which are rarely reported to cause headaches. Most of the science points to histamines, sulfites and dehydration and the most likely causes behind wine headaches.
So What’s the Solution??
We already briefly discussed the availability of “sulfite-free” wines. This option appears to have more drawbacks than advantages. One, the wine is not and cannot be 100% sulfite-free as there are naturally occurring sulfites present already. Second, reviews on sulfite-free wines are pretty dismal. Because there are no added preservatives to the wine they can spoil quickly and tend to have harsher tastes. Third, if your reactions to wine are being caused by the histamines present then purchasing a sulfite-free wine won’t solve the problem.
Regardless of whether you are sensitive to sulfites or histamines or both, ensuring you are sufficiently hydrated before indulging in that crisp glass of wine is a must. “General water intake guidelines for women are at approximately 2.7 liters (91 ounces) of total water -- from all beverages and foods -- each day, and men an average of approximately 3.7 liters (125 ounces daily) of total water.” On days when you know you will be consuming alcohol try to add a few extra cups of water to your regular routine to try and prevent dehydration.
Some report taking antihistamines before drinking wine to reduce or even prevent their symptoms. NOTE: Always talk with a health professional for actual health advice and drug interactions. Many antihistamines cause drowsiness and/or dehydration which can be increased when mixed with alcohol.
A second option to consider is natural forms of antihistamines. Stinging nettle, Bromelain, Quercetin and Vitamin C are all natural forms of antihistamines. These can be purchased in the as teas or supplements in various forms. Again, talk with a medical professional to confirm the safety of taking any form of an antihistamine with alcohol.
There are several different products on the market that filter out sulfites, histamines or both! Some even double as aerators. There are wine drops claiming they “remove” the sulfites and tannins from wine. Products like these can be pricey, but the real concern is what the actual contents of the “filters” are. Browsing through several different filters I was unable to find the exact contents listed in any of the descriptions which can be concerning. Maybe the filters truly do remove sulfites and histamines, but are there other ingredients involved that can be harmful?
It’s difficult to say! At Facial Lounge we are very wary of recommending products to our clients. We only ever suggest products we have tested ourselves and thoroughly reviewed the ingredients listed to ensure there are no toxic/harmful chemicals present. Before recommending any specific products in this realm we want to test several of them ourselves and do some more digging as to the actual contents of these products.
We plan to post an update to this article in a few weeks time sharing our findings and hopefully providing more insight as to how these issues with wine can be resolved! If any of you have tried any of these filters or wine drops we would LOVE to hear your experience with them! Leave us a comment below or on any of our other social media platforms :)
Center for Disease Control
Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan (Master of Wine)