If ever there were a word guaranteed to make the beverage industry shudder, it most likely would be “sulfites.”
Somehow, like clowns in the forest or alligators in the New York City sewers, sulfites in wine became the stuff of urban legend, the catalyst for every headache, migraine, and Andy Capp–style hangover.
And yet, there’s no scientific evidence to support such claims.
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Though there are people for whom sulfites are a concern, the FDA estimates that only about 1 percent of Americans are sulfite hypersensitive—and 5 percent of that 1 percent of people are asthmatic. For these people, according to allergists such as those at the Cleveland Clinic, sulfites can trigger an asthmatic reaction.
But not a headache.
Rather, the so-called red wine headache is more likely the result of high residual sugar, tannins, and histamines—or even the imbiber’s dehydration.
Yet even though the science suggests otherwise, many people steer clear of red wines because they believe that the sulfur dioxide (SO₂) that’s added to wine to keep it from oxidizing is causing their headaches. Perhaps that’s because in the U.S., wines with added SO₂ must be labeled accordingly.
The sulfite warning label came about in 1986 in response to complaints about the pervasive use of sulfites—28 percent of the complaints stemmed from the use of sulfites at salad bars, where fruits and vegetables would sit in a sulfite bath; another 6 percent came from the use of sulfites in potatoes. At the time, sulfites had been linked to eight deaths, primarily people with asthma. Since 1988, the sulfite warning label has been required by law on all bottles of wine sold in the U.S. that contain 10 parts per million SO₂ or more.
Back to those people with asthma. Yes, it’s real, which means the diner who can’t have any wine with sulfites also will be avoiding the dried fruit in her salad, potatoes and fries, and probably shrimp and beer too.
Separating the allergic customer from the one who heard, somewhere, that sulfites cause headaches—and keeping a straight face while dealing with the latter—may be a Sisyphean task. Here’s how a handful of wine pros have been handling it.
Pascaline Lepeltier, MS, says that the conversation isn’t such a big deal, although she does find it a bit annoying. When she worked at New York’s Rouge Tomate, the topic of sulfites came up almost nightly. And while responding to a request for a no-sulfite wine is easy—the restaurant had an extensive selection of organic and biodynamic wines, and she says she could easily find 12 no-added-sulfites options on the by-the-glass pour list alone—once the issue is raised, she does dig a little deeper.
“We then stop to have a conversation,” says Lepeltier. “Is it no-sulfur because it’s an allergy—or because it’s a preference? Because after that there’s a lot of things you can’t have if you have an allergy, including mustard, dried fruits, and all that.” Then, says Lepeltier, the question she asks is, “Do you want something on the cleaner side, or something that is more wild?” The responses, she says, are pretty much split down the middle.
When talking about sulfites with guests at New York’s Acme restaurant, Nicole Hakli, MS, the restaurant’s wine director, has a spiel she typically gives: “Unfortunately, all wine contains some degree of sulfites. Sulfites are actually good for a wine; they act as a preservative from oxygenation and bacteria. There are wines with no additional sulfites; however, you do risk purchasing a wine that may show signs of oxidation or ‘earthiness’—or uncleanliness—as well as bottle variation. The best option would actually be a red wine because they generally need less sulfites due to their natural protective grape tannin. White wines will have significantly more sulfites because they are more prone to oxygenation.” She will then recommend some producers that use less sulfites but who create wines that are still good quality, including La Stoppa from Emilia-Romagna, or Alice et Olivier de Moor from Burgundy.”
While Verve Wine’s Dustin Wilson, MS, gets fewer queries from customers about sulfites these days, his response is typically to remind people that sulfur is found in the natural environment.
“It’s going to be found naturally in wines whether it’s added or not,” he says. “If you’re talking [about] quality wine, which we usually are when [referring to] restaurants or quality retail environments such as Verve, once you get outside the world of grocery store wines, which often have high levels of sulfites, most quality wine isn’t in any sulfite range that is going to be harmful to anyone.”
But these caveats don’t stop Wilson from seeking to enlighten consumers. “A lot [of people] equate sulfites with headaches, and there’s no tie to that,” he says. “For regular people, if you don’t have asthma and you’re drinking quality wines, the level of sulfites is definitely not the cause of your headache. If you’re eating grape jam on your toast in the morning, that [probably] has a lot more sulfites than your wine.”
David Morris, the wine director for CUT by Wolfgang Puck in New York City, knows the sulfite conundrum well. It’s one he’s been dealing with for years, since the time when a Seattle physician told all the guests at his table that French wine was injected with sulfites on entering the U.S. At the time, Morris could do nothing but grin and bear it. Today, at CUT, when a customer tells Morris that sulfites give him migraines, he tries to handle it diplomatically—beginning by deciding whether a little information will enhance or detract from the guest’s experience.
“At the end of the day,” says Morris, “they came to have a good time, they came here to dine, they’re spending their money, they didn’t come to be lectured [and told] that they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
One strategy Morris uses, when faced with a staunchly antisulfite guest, is to direct him or her to small-production wines and biodynamic producers who use minimal amounts of sulfites. And on hearing a guest’s tale of how he went to Europe and drank wine all day and never had a hangover “because they don’t put sulfur in the wine,” he typically responds with the alcohol explanation: When in Rome, you do as the Romans do—drink local wines that are typically no more than 13.5 percent alcohol, along with a meal and lots of water. When you return home and resume cocktailing with cult Cali Cabs, which often contain 15 to 16 percent alcohol, it’s probably not the sulfites to blame but the alcohol.
The relationship between headaches and sulfites isn’t fueled by research—there’s a dearth of evidence showing any connection between the two. “The concern over sulfites is driven by the fact that the label exists, and people think, ‘This must be deadly stuff,’” says Andrew L. Waterhouse, a professor of enology in the department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California at Davis. “There’s no data showing sulfites cause headaches. But people ascribe all sort of nasty things to sulfites because there’s a label.”
Additionally, Waterhouse points out that organic wines in Europe—which has a robust organic wine market—are allowed to include sulfites. “As far as I know,” he says, “the U.S. is the only market where sulfites are prohibited for organic wine production.”
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for a wine to be labeled organic in the U.S., it may contain naturally produced sulfur dioxide but may not have any sulfites added. This is true of both American-made and imported wines. In the European Union, however, wines may have sulfites added—up to 100 mg per liter for reds, and 150 mg per liter for whites and rosés—and still qualify as organic. Those levels are even higher for nonorganic wines. Organic or not, these labeling qualifications pretty much negate the argument that wines in Europe are headache free because they’re sulfite free.
Similarly, organic winemakers in New Zealand are allowed to use sulfites. So while Kim Crawford’s new organic Loveblock Wines can be called organic in New Zealand, the sulfur dioxide he hits his Sauvignon Blanc grapes with when they come from the vineyard to, as he says, keep the wine from turning brown, disallows that label in the U.S.
Enough about what the somms say: Let’s look at the science. According to the review article “Wine and Headache,” by Abouch Valenty Krymchantowski, MD, MSci, PhD, FAHS, and Carla da Cunha Jevoux, MD, MSci, PhD, published in 2014 in Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain, the idea that SO₂ in wine is responsible for headaches is wrong “since the food and wine preservative sulfur dioxide, called generically sulfite, although present in wines, is much more existent in common foods that do not trigger headache attacks, such as dried fruit.”
In fact, red wines contain about 160 parts per million of sulfites, whites contain about 210 ppm, and dried fruit typically contains up to 1,000 ppm. Yet because few people complain about dried-apricot migraines, it seems the only ones getting a headache from all these sulfites may be the somms.
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When she’s not writing about beverage, travel, or weird science, Julie H. Case can be found deep in America’s forests, foraging for mushrooms.