Sulfite It To Say: Stop Demonizing Sulfites In Wine


A recent Wired article by Christopher Null reiterated what many wine lovers have believed for quite some time: Sulfites are an utterly natural part of wine life. And they’re probably not causing your wine headaches.

Sulfites are the clumping together of sulfur-derived compounds. They are a natural creation of the fermentation process. They prevent big bad microbes from colonizing our wine and rendering it undrinkable. As a matter of metabolic process, the human body produces up to 1000 mg. of sulfites per day. The trouble begins when wine and food producers alike add extra sulfites to their products to safeguard them against microbial interlopers. Sulfites lengthen the shelf life for otherwise perishable products.

The problem is that some people (very few, according to studies) are deficient in a natural enzyme that helps to break down sulfites. Indeed, there are folks out there who are incredibly allergic to sulfites –but those people have an aversion to many food products as well; this includes trail mix, sandwich crackers, packaged tortillas, and a fair number of prescription and non-prescription drugs. The analgesics that you may use to cure your wine headache are on the list.  That said, anyone could have a harsh reaction to sulfites when they are added to products in obscenely high amounts. This helps explain why the United States government stepped in some thirty years ago to regulate their use.
In 1986 the FDA in the United States officially deemed sulfites an allergen. If a U.S. product contains more than ten milligrams of sulfites per liter it must be disclosed on the package. Once something is disclosed, it’s natural to assume that there’s a reason for the (dishonorable?) mention. It’s similar to arguments made against GMO labeling: Some believe it a completely normal process, so why bother mentioning it?

In his Wired article, Null points out that there are other factors that can contribute to wine headaches. They include histamine, tyramine, and of course, the dehydrating effects of alcohol. But Null does acknowledge that no matter how many medical studies exonerate sulfites (and there have been several), many wine drinkers will continue to believe that they’re severely allergic to it.

Do you fear sulfites? In your experience, do they provoke ill-effects? How deeply do you believe in the power of suggestion? I suggest you let us know in the comments.

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