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Myths about sulphites and wine

If drinking red wine gives you a headache, you’ve probably had someone tell you that sulphites are the likely culprit. Perhaps you’ve been advised to stick to white wine, organic wines on the grounds that these will be lower in sulphites? Let’s clear up some of the most common myths and misunderstandings about sulphites, wine and headaches.

Sulphites in wine

First, a little background: Sulphur dioxide (or SO2) is a chemical compound made up of sulfur and oxygen. It occurs naturally but can also be produced in a laboratory.  It’s used to preserve foods and beverages, which it does by acting as an antioxidant and antimicrobial.

SO2 has been used in winemaking for thousands of years, ever since the ancient Romans discovered that it would keep their wine from turning into vinegar. To this day, winemakers use SO2 to preserve the flavour and freshness of wines.

By [US] law, wines that contain more than 10 ppm (parts per million) sulphite must be labeled with the words “contains sulphites”.  There are also upper limits to how much sulphite a wine may contain but the regulations vary by region.

In the EU, wine may contain up to 210 ppm sulphites. In the US, the upper limit is 350 ppm.

Myth #1: Organic or bio-dynamic wines are sulphite free

In order to be certified organic, a wine must not contain added sulphites. However, sulphites are produced naturally during the fermentation process as a by-product of yeast metabolism.

Even though no sulphites are added, organic wine may contain between 10-40 ppm sulphites.

 You may also see wines labeled as being made from organic grapes, which is not the same as organic wine. Wine made from organic grapes may contain up to 100 ppm sulphites.

If you do get a hold of wine made without sulphites, I don’t suggest keeping it in the cellar very long. Wine made without sulphites — especially white wine — is much more prone to oxidation and spoilage.

Myth #2: Red wine is higher in sulphites than white wine

Ironically, the exact opposite is likely to be true.

Red wines tend to be higher in tannins than white wines. Tannins are polyphenols found in the skins, seeds, and stems of the grapes. They also act as antioxidants and preservatives so less sulphite is needed. 

In fact, while European regulations allow up to 210 ppm sulphites in white wine, the limit for red wine is only 160 ppm.

Other factors that affect how much sulphite is needed are the residual sugar and the acidity of the wine.

Dryer wines with more acid will tend to be lower in sulphites. Sweet wines and dessert wines, on the other hand, tend to be quite high in sulphites.

Myth #3: Sulphites in wine cause headaches

The so-called “red wine headache” is definitely a real thing. But it’s probably not due to sulphites.

For one thing, white wine is higher in sulphites than red wine but less likely to cause a headache. That suggests that it’s probably something else in red wine that’s responsible for the notorious red wine headache.

Other candidates include histamines, tyramine, tannins, not to mention the alcohol itself!

Which foods contain sulphites?

A small percentage of the population (about 1%) are sensitive to sulphites — most of them are asthma sufferers. Reactions can include swelling, hives, asthma, and migraines.

If you have a sulphite sensitivity, you probably want to avoid wine. But you’ll also want to steer clear of soda, candy, prepared soups, frozen juices, processed meats, potato chips, French fries and dried fruit, all of which contain much higher concentrations of sulphites than wine.

If you don’t have a sulphite sensitivity, there appears to be little reason to fear sulphites in otherwise healthy foods. For example, you don’t have to settle for dried apricots that are tough and brown if you prefer the kind that are soft and orange.