13 Sep Spreading The Truth About Sulfites in Wine
The Truth about Sulfites and Wine
Open up your laptop, head on over to Google and type in ‘sulfites in wine.’ What do you see? Most likely, pages of search engine results offering contradictory and inconclusive information about the role of sulfites in wine allergies. Much has been written on the subject, but how much is fact, fiction or a wine myth? Because the story about sulfites in wine is inconsistent, I would like to set the record straight.
Let’s start from the beginning. Sulfites are a natural by-product of yeast metabolism in the wine making process, so all wine contains small amounts of sulfites. More than 2,000 years ago, the Romans were the first to add sulfites to wine as a preservative. Ever since, sulfites have been used throughout the wine making process.
There is a lot of buzz about organic wine these days too. Have you noticed that more wines are being labeled ‘made from organically grown grapes’ instead of labeled ‘organically produced wine’? This is because wine classified as ‘organic’ in the US must not contain any added sulfites. In recent years, wine producers have focused on raising organic grapes, but most still add sulfites to ensure a longer shelf-life and prevent oxidation which affects wine color and taste. When the wine finally arrives at your home or neighborhood restaurant, the added sulfites help guarantee that the bottle will be fresh and taste the way the winemaker intend.
Added sulfites may sometimes cause negative side effects, like nasal congestion, an itchy throat, a runny nose, skin rash, and hives in some people. It has been reported in medical literature that less than 1% of people have a strong allergic reaction to sulfites. Are sulfites the real cause of common symptoms people experience when drinking just one or two glasses of wine? Or have sulfites become a red herring in the wine industry?
If you want to self-diagnose sulfite sensitivity, a common recommendation in the wine media is to try eating a piece of dried fruit, like an apricot, to gauge your reaction. Sulfites are often added to dried fruit to prevent discoloration. Who wants to eat a brown, dehydrated apricot or mango? There is a significant problem with this line of reasoning. When sulfites are sprinkled on fruit, they quickly react with the fruit surface and become immobilized. Your body cannot absorb them, and they reach your stomach for digestion still bound onto the fruit surface.
I recently performed a series of experiments to confirm that the dried fruit test is not an accurate indicator of sulfite sensitivity. Sweet white wines such as Sauterne or Riesling usually contain the highest levels of sulfites, so if you sometimes notice negative physical reactions when drinking one or two glasses of these varietals, sulfites are likely the culprit. If red wines trigger your unwanted side effects, sulfites are probably not causing your symptoms because red wines have fewer added sulfites than white wines. A more likely culprit is the histamine naturally produced in red wines.
More about histamine intolerance caused by red wine in my next blog post!
As always, we recommend that you consult your physician to accurately diagnose any allergy.
Savor every sip!