Got A Wine Headache? Don’t Blame Sulfites

If you’ve picked up a bottle of wine lately, and I certainly hope you have, you might have noticed the following words on the label: “Contains Sulfites.”

These misunderstood little compounds, most of which are in the form of sulfur dioxide (SO2), often get a lot of flak and are blamed for causing those infamous wine headaches. They are, in fact, harmless for the most part, though. Many wine sulfites are actually naturally occurring and are produced during fermentation. The reason winemakers sometimes add even more of them to wines to prevent oxidation and bacterial growth. So really, sulfites are just a preservative.

You'll notice this warning on pretty much every bottle's back label.

You’ll notice this warning on pretty much every bottle’s back label.

A lot of folks who experience headaches after drinking, or allergic reactions to wine seem to think that they are caused by sulfites when in fact, those allergies are usually a result of the alcohol or histamines in the wine. The FDA has even said, “The overall prevalence of sulfite sensitivity in the general population is unknown and probably low.”

If a lot of people were allergic to sulfites, you’d also hear about the terrible reactions they would have to things like dried fruits, soy sauce, pickles, packaged meats and even soda, all of which contain higher levels of sulfites than your average bottle of wine.

Some people with severe asthma can experience a severe allergic reaction to sulfites including sneezing, rashes, cramps and trouble breathing. However, if you don’t have asthma and your allergies generally aren’t a big bother, chances are sulfites won’t affect you either.

Another interesting thing to point out is that white wines often contain more sulfites than red wines, though red wines tend to have more histamines and tannins, which can also cause allergic reactions and headaches. So that’s why you might hear people complaining about red wine-induced headaches more often than white, which is the opposite of what you would expect if sulfites were indeed the culprits.

That wine headache is likely caused by histamines or alcohol, not sulfites. Image source: Thinkstock.

That wine headache is likely caused by histamines or alcohol, not sulfites. Image source: Thinkstock.

Now, you might have actually seen some wines labeled as “sulfite-free,” but this is a bit of a gray area as well. If a winery can demonstrate that their wine contains less than 10 milligrams of sulfites per liter, they are allowed to label their wines as such. There will, however, still be some naturally occurring sulfites in them.

So basically, you won’t really be able to find a wine that doesn’t have sulfites. But it doesn’t matter. Chances are that wine headache you have has more to do with the quality or quantity of the wine you’re drinking than how many sulfites it contains.

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