What’s The Bottom-Line Truth About Sulfites In Wine?

Few things strike terror into the hearts of wine drinkers as much as seeing the words "contains sulfites" on the label. Without even knowing what sulfites are, many millions of wine drinkers have decided that this scary-sounding chemical compound is something to be avoided and feared.

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In this article, we will try and clear up some of the myths and misconceptions about sulfites, and tell you whether your fear of them is justified.

It might surprise you to know that sulfites (the word is also sometimes written as "Sulphites") exist in many everyday foods, ranging from tuna to cheese, jams to meat, and even common medicine pills.

The reason that you may not even know that these foods contain sulfites is that there is no legal requirement to label them as such. Wine is one of the few items that is required to state "contains sulfites" on the label. In fact, most dried fruits you buy from your local supermarket contain about ten times more sulfites than wine.

To make things even more complicated, a wine that is classified as "sulfite-free" can still contain sulfites as long as they are at a level below 10 mg/L.

What Are Sulfites?

Sulfites are a range of chemical compounds, including sulfur dioxide, which arise naturally from the fermentation process of wine.

The sulfites act as a protective barrier against bacteria and yeast that might otherwise destroy the wine. The problem is that the quantity of natural sulfites produced by fermentation is not sufficient to preserve the wine for more than a few days.

So wine producers, to make their bottles last for months or years, add artificial sulfites to the wine. This enables them to keep the pesky microbes under control and preserve the wine longer, keeping it from fermenting into bitter vinegar.

The artificial addition of sulfites to wine is not even a recent development. For centuries, they have used to preserve wine. Sulfites have been recorded as being added to wine in Ancient Egyptian and Roman times.

Without sulfites, it simply would not be possible for wine enthusiasts to store their bottles for extended periods of time without them going off. So from what we have said, it seems that there are some significant benefits to having sulfites in wine.

However, that does not mean that having more sulfites is better. It is still a good idea to have as few as possible in the wine. And that is because sulfur dioxide smells unpleasant. If you are a sensitive wine taster, you may even be able to pick up the taste of even a moderate amount of it within the wine itself.

But most people's concerns about sulfites are not to do with the taste but more to do with the health implications of them. So let's take a look and see whether sulfites can really harm your health.

Without sulfites, it simply would not be possible for wine enthusiasts to store their bottles for extended periods of time without them going off

Are Sulfites In Wine Harmful?

Generally speaking, sulfites in wine cause no trouble for most people.

If you do happen to be allergic to sulfites, it will have become apparent long before you ever encounter a bottle of wine. And this is because sulfites are prevalent in so many of our everyday foods.

Even then, US health authorities estimate that less than one percent of the US population has any allergic reaction to sulfites.

The only other groups who might have problems with sulfites are those who suffer from severe asthma attacks or those who do not have the required enzymes within their bodies to break down the chemical compounds.

If you think that sulfites may be causing problems for you, it may be best to look first at the kinds of processed foods you are eating before you blame all your problems on wine drinking.

Are Wine Headaches Caused By Sulfites?

This is a controversial topic. Even though many studies have shown that sulfites do not cause headaches, many wine drinkers still insist that they do.

If you think that sulfites are causing your headaches when you drink wine, there is a simple test you can do to prove whether this is actually the case.

Remember earlier in this article we mentioned that many everyday foods contain sulfites? And also remember that we said that dried fruits could contain ten times as many sulfites as a bottle of wine?

So to prove to yourself whether sulfites cause your headaches, just eat lots of dried fruit, or other foods containing high sulfite levels, while staying off the wine for a few days.

If you are still getting the headaches, you could say that you now have some hard evidence that sulfites may be giving you the head pains.

However, most people who try this find that this is not the case. So the wine headaches must be being caused by something else in the wine.

What people usually overlook, even though it is evident, is that wine also contains alcohol. Alcohol can dehydrate you significantly if you are not careful, causing the same kinds of headaches. This is one of the causes of hangovers.

And even if you think that dehydration is not responsible, remember that there are also numerous other chemical structures within the wine that may be responsible.

Medical science has still not definitively investigated the link between wine-drinking and headaches so the arguments may rage on for some time yet. But, hopefully, we have given you a better understanding of the issues.

Even though many studies have shown that sulfites do not cause headaches, many wine drinkers still insist that they do

Which Wines Have Less Sulfites?

The thing to remember is that all wine has some level of sulfites within it - it comes about naturally from the fermentation process. So if you are looking for a completely sulfite-free wine, it's a myth. That kind of wine does not exist unless it is artificially made to be that way.

Instead what you are probably looking for are wines that have the lowest level of artificially-added sulfites. In this case, your best bet would be to look for organic wines.

Organic wines are grown from organically produced grapes, and they are made in such a way that do not have artificial chemicals added during the wine-making process.

If you are looking to go one step further and drink only wines that have the minimum possible naturally-occurring sulfites as well, then you have to consider the kind of grape from which the wine is made.

The most naturally-occurring sulfur dioxide is contained in sweet white dessert wines followed closely by semi-sweet white wines. So it is best to avoid these.

A dry white wine has average levels of natural sulfites.

However, if you are looking for the lowest possible naturally-occurring sulfite levels then you should stick to dry red wines.

The Bottom Line On Sulfites In Wine

As you can see, the question of sulfites in wine is not an easy one to answer.

On the one hand, sulfites are valuable in preserving wine but, on the other hand, public opinion is often against their use.

Current medical science does not find a problem with sulfites affecting health as far as average levels are concerned. Researchers tend to agree that allergies to sulfites are relatively rare.

So if you have a reaction to wine, it might well be because of some other substances contained in the wine, not the sulfites themselves.

Nevertheless, there are a growing number of natural wines on the market that have reduced artificial sulfite levels. However, as we said above, they will still contain some levels of naturally occurring sulfites.

Of course, it is your choice whether you wish to avoid sulfites are not. But as we said above, it is not necessary to fear the wine label when it says "contains sulfites."


Photo by jamesonf