The Good Fight for the Sulfite

Don’t be afraid! Yes, sulfites are in your red, white, and rose wine. However, they have been given a bad wrap. Sulfites have played the role of scapegoat since the 1980’s and have been falsely accused of inducing countless headaches and other adverse conditions.

At Il Posto, I often hear the exclamation, “I can’t drink red wine because the sulfites give me a headache”. I want to respond by telling them not to blame the sulfites. In fact, a reaction to sulfites is extremely unlikely. It is much more likely that the person is sensitive to other the allergens in red wine, such as the tannins or the histamines (not to mention the alcohol). According to the FDA, only 1% of the population has sulfite sensitivity. Also, of this 1%, the lion’s share consists of asthmatics. I have found that there is a danger in revealing this truth. It tends to leave the person offended and shaking their head in skepticism. It is a very strange thing how people seem to embrace what they think is an affliction with sulfites as if it is a safety blanket. The removal of the safety blanket is interpreted as an offense and almost always invites a fiery, often illogical, debate. I have had a few.

Sulfites are a group of sulfur-based compounds which act as preservatives and occur naturally during the winemaking process. As yeast eats sugar it converts it into alcohol, CO2, and sulfites. Additionally, winemakers frequently add sulfites with the intention of preserving their wine and preventing it from spoiling before reaching the consumer. The artificially added sulfites are sodium metabisulfite and potassium metabisulfite. It is interesting to note that having little to no tannins, which act as a preservative, white wines generally have much higher levels of sulfites than do red wines. I can honestly say that no one has ever exclaimed to me that, “I avoid white wines because the elevated level of sulfites gives me headaches”. Dried fruit typically contains more sulfites than a glass of red wine, as do some lower end brands of orange, lemon, and lime juice. Other foods that often contain artificial sulfites are candy bars, pre-cut potatoes and French fries, maraschino cherries, bread, frozen dough, molasses, fresh shrimp, beer, prepared sauces, and other items requiring preservation.

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It is a common misconception that European winemakers do not use artificial sulfites. The European government’s regulation of the additives allowed into wine is incredibly loose. Winemakers are not required to place a label that warns of sulfites on their bottles and, in general, their wines contain an equal amount of sulfites as domestic wines. Conversely, the US government legislates that any food or beverage with over 10ppm of sulfites must have a label saying “Contains Sulfites”. In fact, since the 1600’s the Europeans have researched the benefits of adding sulfites to wine. Their conclusion is that sulfites are a fundamental ingredient in order to make good wine.

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People often say that during their European vacation they were able to drink wine without getting headaches, as opposed to being back in the states and drinking domestic wine, which always gives them headaches. They typically cite that European wines have lower levels of additives and no sulfites (because there is no government required warning label on the bottle). In actuality, the wine probably has a comparable, if not higher, amount of sulfites. The wine is likely to have a lower alcohol content than domestic wines, which is consistent with the old world. Also, elevation can be a factor, as can a general sense of well-being and relaxation, which are not uncommon feelings while on vacation. Naivety can be bliss. Especially, when you are drinking a bottle of wine “without sulfites” on the French Riviera- I don’t think I’d get a headache either.

So what is in red wine that is causing these headaches? Research has shown that the ingestion of tannins causes the body to release serotonin. No wonder I feel happy when I drink red wine… I always thought it was the alcohol! However, serotonin has also been linked to inducing migraines in people that already suffer from them. In addition to being found in wine, tannins are found in foods like tea, vegetable and fruit skins, and chocolate. If these can be consumed without a headache the cause is probably something else. Histamines are found in red wine as well and are a known allergen. These occur in very low levels though and it is debatable if enough histamines exist to cause an allergic reaction. Histamines are also found in cured meats and cheeses. While wine may have low levels of histamines to begin with, the combination of pairing it with cured meats and aged cheeses may be enough to raise the histamine levels to point where they could trigger adverse reactions.

Another culprit could be the quality of the wine being consumed. Many more impurities exist in lower-end wines than do in high-end wines. These impurities are often a result of a rushed and incomplete filtering/fining process, which removes impurities from the wine. The products used in the fining process are things like egg whites, which bind to tannins; casein, which is a phosphoprotein commonly found mammalian milk; and isinglass, which is a form of collagen derived from the swim bladders of fish and is often used to clarify wine and beer. The better the wine and producer, the better the chance of having a wine without headache causing impurities.

Natural wines are beginning to carve out a section in the wine marketplace. A natural wine is one without the addition of sulfites. However, because sulfites are a natural product of the winemaking process, no wine can be utterly sulfite free. I recently tried a fantastic ‘natural’ Barbera d’Asti at Old Major from Cascina Tavijn, and there are plenty of others on the market if you choose to disregard the research that does not link sulfites to headaches. The one percent, however, who has a sulfite allergy, does need to be extremely cautious. In the last 20 years, nine people have died from a sulfite allergy, though none of these were from sulfites in wine. Instead they reacted to the sulfites used to preserve their prescription medicine.

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For the most part though, we make up the 99%. In this sense, we should be elated! Its time to embrace our sulfite friends and salute them for keeping our wine delicious! I say lets celebrate with a glass full of red wine and plate teeming with cured meats and aged cheeses! And lets blame our headaches on what we know in our hearts to be the true cause- going to sleep after a long night of drinking!

About Max Koepke


As a Sedona, Arizona native I grew up obsessed with the outdoors and exploring the southwest. I lived in Orvieto, Italy for six months and gained a great appreciation for Italian food and culture, with an emphasis on wine. This appreciation of wine led me to seeking out employment at places with extensive wine lists that placed their focus on Italian wines. I have worked for Lettuce Entertain You in Chicago, Telluride Ski and Golf at their flagship restaurant, Allred's, and their top-o-the-mountain wine bar, Alpino Vino. Currently, I work as the sommelier at the northern Italian restaurant, Il Posto, in Denver. My sommelier courses were taught by Frasca's Bobby Stuckey in Aspen, Colorado. In addition to the pursuit of wine I also have a passion for photography, the outdoors, and Colorado's striking mountains (especially when they're covered in thick blankets of snow).