David’s article as prepared for the Duluth News Tribune for the article which ran on 9/17/2014:
Just because a wine label says “Contains Sulfites” it doesn’t mean you are allergic to it or that because you got a headache, a flushed face, hot flashes, a scratchy throat or a stuffy nose after drinking wine that it was the sulfites that caused the reaction. Because it wasn’t. Sulfites are not a problem. A sulfite allergy doesn’t manifest as any of those reactions and they certainly don’t give you a red wine headache.
Here are some truths for you to chew on. Sulfites are a group of food preservative chemicals, one of which is SO2, also known as sulfur dioxide. Sulfites are used in prepackaged or prepared foods such as dried fruit, fruit juices, canned soups, packaged meats, breads, jams, candy, french fries and beer, just to name a few. Sulfites help preserve food by inhibiting mold and bacterial growth. The natural yeasts that make wine produce about 10ppm of sulfites during fermentation. On average, red wine contains around 25ppm of sulfites, dried apricots 3700ppm, and french fries 1850ppm. Curiously, we don’t hear people complaining about french fry headaches.
Do you see what I’m saying? If you really had an allergy to sulfites that produced the most common wine-attributed sulfite ailments, then most likely all foods would make you sick.
Then why is it on the label? Because for a small percentage of asthmatics, inhaling of sulfites can cause difficulty breathing. US and EU laws have determined that any wine that contains 10ppm of sulfites should have the disclaimer “Contains Sulfites” on the bottle. Since natural and commercial yeasts used in fermentation of wine grapes produces 10ppm or more of sulfites, this guarantees that the notification will be on the bottle. And I suspect that since there is no ingredient list on a wine bottle, sulfites get blamed for any bad effects from drinking wine.
Did you catch what I said there? I’ll repeat it. There isn’t an ingredient list on a wine bottle. Should there be? Many, including me, think so. Why? Because it’s not sulfites that we should be worried about – it’s everything else that’s being added to that cheap wine to make it palatable. This shouldn’t be a big surprise to anyone. When purchasing wine, you really do get what you pay for and good quality is, and should be, discernible, measurable and shouldn’t make you sick.
The romantic in me wants to believe that wine is an elemental food like fruit or vegetables or meat. That wine is complete and pure, simply fruit juice fermented into wine. My intellectual side laughs at the romantic as I know wine is an altered manufactured product. Winemakers facing the financial responsibility and reality of a harvest will often add water, sugar, enzymes, alcohol, acids, tannins, and even a proprietary (read that as ingredients unknown) product called Super Purple to their wines. This along with, of course, sulfites.
They do this because the best juice from the harvest goes into making the winery’s best wines. This juice is labeled under words like Reserve, Grand, Premium. The rest of the juice becomes manipulated – with the least favorable juice receiving the most manipulation.
Many people do have an allergic reaction or sensitivity to wine. Sometimes it makes people sneeze or makes their cheeks red. Maybe it causes an itchy chin or a headache. But I’d wager that more often than not, the wines that produce those effects are lower quality. Why? Because they have been altered in some fashion to make them taste ok. You know these wines, they cost just a few dollars and taste rather one dimensional. The winery can get away making a food that makes you sick because it’s cheap and they know you’ll blame the sulfites.
Stop blaming the sulfites and just buy a better wine by spending just a few more dollars. In more ways than one your senses will thank you.
David Devere is a licensed wine educator in Minnesota. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.