Sulfites. This is a subject that comes up in the winery tasting room on a weekly basis, if not more often. “I think I may have a sulfite allergy.” “I get headaches when I drink red wine.” These are regular phrases I hear and they are legitimate concerns. When the human body reacts to something, it can be as simple as a mild headache or something more severe such as an acute systemic reaction. It is important to take a look at what might actually be causing such a reaction if someone does indeed have a sensitivity when consuming wine. In reality, the facts may actually surprise you. Let us take a look at sulfites, and remove the unknown and scary out of the phrase on the back of most wine labels: Contains Sulfites.
This is possibly the most commonly talked about issue concerning reactions or sensitivity to fermented beverages. Sulfites are a safe and simple way to preserve wine. As scary as sulfites seem, they are literally inorganic salts, which offer preservative and antioxidant properties. That’s not so scary right? The FDA long ago deemed sulfites safe for food and beverage and they are a common ingredient in much, much more than just wine. Food or drink containing sulfites must be labeled “contains sulfites” if the amount meets or exceeds 10 ppm (parts per million).
Although most healthy folks have no issues concerning sulfites whatsoever, it is estimated 1 out of 100 people have some degree of sensitivity to sulfites. The symptoms can vary greatly among those that do have sensitivity including; dermatological, pulmonary, cardiovascular, and gastrointestinal issues. Individuals with steroid dependent asthma are at the greatest risk concerning sulfite sensitivity. What does this mean for you? Below are some common questions people have concerning sulfites. This is not a master list per se, but a general overview of some of the more common concerns.
Q: What exactly are sulfites?
A: Sulfites are inorganic salts that are commonly (nearly always) utilized during winemaking. They act as a barrier or preservative for the wine. Most winemakers use the minimal amount necessarily to help preserve the wine.
Q: Is wine safe to drink even though sulfites are present?
A: Absolutely! So long as you are not one of the few people who are extremely sensitive to sulfites, you can responsibly enjoy wine on a regular basis.
Q: How do I know if I am sulfite sensitive?
A: If you notice that you commonly have skin, airway, or stomach issues after consuming food or drinks (especially processed foods), then you could very well be sulfite sensitive. (As always, consult your doctor FIRST, before making any food or beverage choices if you are ever in doubt)
Q: Is organic wine sulfite-free?
A: No. There is no such thing as a sulfite-free fermented beverage. While some wines may contain a lower amount of sulfites in ppm (parts per million), they still contain some degree of sulfites, as sulfur dioxide is a natural by-product of the fermentation process. By the USDA organic standard, any wine, foreign or domestic, can contain only naturally occurring sulfites (less than 10 ppm) to be marketed and sold as an “organic wine.” Basically, an organic wine sold in the USA can only have naturally occurring sulfites present, no sulfites may be added in the winemaking process. Wines sold as “made with organic grapes” have their own set of regulations and labeling laws.
Q: What other everyday items might contain sulfites?
A: Aside from alcoholic beverages, you might find sulfites in prepackaged bacon, dried and canned fruits, cookies, crackers, flour tortillas, pie crust, pizza crust, shredded coconut, potato salad, instant potatoes, corn syrup, pancake syrup, canned, bottled, or frozen fruit juice, etc… As you can see, the list goes on and on. You might want to note that the FDA prohibits sulfite use in fresh fruits and vegetables, except for fresh potatoes.
I really hope this helps many of you grasp a better understanding of what sulfites are and how they may or may not affect you. The purpose of writing this article is to clear the air, so to speak, in regards to sulfites in wine. I hear too often the phrase, “I cannot drink red wine because of sulfites,” yet this same person can eat four strips of prepackaged bacon every morning for breakfast with no issue, in which a single strip of bacon can contain more sulfites than a glass of wine. See where I am going here?
Moral of the story is, sulfites are a safe preservative commonly used in winemaking. Most of us can enjoy wine without issue, but there are indeed some people who are sulfite sensitive, and might have a mild to severe reaction to any consumable product containing sulfites. In many cases, the reaction or sensitivity someone has when drinking wine is another issue altogether, such as histamine intolerance or tannin sensitivity. That in itself is an entirely different discussion we will save for another time.
Disclaimer: Texas Wine Lover is not a doctor, nor do we claim to be. The above information is strictly an outline of sulfites and their use in wine as well as other foods and beverages. Please consult with your doctor if you feel you may have sensitivity or reactions to any food or beverage.