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Wine & Sulfites: The Truth About Red Wine Headaches

I am certain many of you have heard the statement, “I can’t drink red wine because I get headaches from sulfites”, or “I can drink white wine but not red because I am allergic to sulfites”. It is an interesting and debatable subject, but to be quite honest, I am not convinced that sulfites are completely to blame. On the contrary, I empathize with folks that suffer from some sort of reaction from drinking wine. I, myself do not experience allergic reactions, nor suffer illness or headaches while consuming red (or white) wine. However, the subject intrigues me none-the-less. Herein I will describe the facts and misconception about sulfites, which will hopefully educate and entertain you along the way.

What are Sulfites?

Sulfites (also called sulphite or sulfur dioxide) by definition are compounds that contain the sulfite ion SO32-. We use these compounds to preserve food like dried fruits, dried potato products and wine. The interesting fact is that all wines contain sulfites, because yeast naturally produces sulfite compounds during the fermentation process, and without sulfites, wine would spoil and oxidize. An interesting fact is that white wine has more sulfites than red wines, and dried fruit and processed products have considerably more sulfites than red wine. Additionally, according to the Food and Drug Administration, only 4% of the population is allergic to sulfites, and Dr. Vincent Marinkovich, an allergist and clinical immunologist who has performed extensive research on the subject claims that sulfites pose no danger to about 99.75% of the population.

Foods that Contain Sulfites

Many foods carry high levels of sulfites (More, 2007). Very high levels of sulfites include foods like wine, dried fruits, grape juices, cocktail onions and molasses. Moderate to high-level foods include foods like vinegar, gravies & sauces, fruit toppings and dried potatoes. Moderate level foods include things like shrimp, corn syrup, mushrooms, cordials, avocados, imported sausages and meats, maple syrup, pickles, cheese, clam chowder, ciders, fruit juices and soft drinks. Many products that we consume throughout the day contain high to moderate levels of sulfites and interestingly enough, we even add sulfites to some medications for their antioxidant properties as well as to prevent browning.

Now if you take another good look at the above food list, can you identify how many times you have experienced illness after eating foods from this list (excluding wine)? If you experienced illness, was your first reaction to blame it on sulfites? The answer is probably not. If you still doubt this analogy, try eating a sizable portion of dried fruit. Try apricots, which contain high levels of sulfites. If you do not experience problems after eating the fruit, more than likely, you do not have allergic reactions to sulfites. If you experience reactions while drinking red wine, some other culprit is causing the reaction.

Myths

Andrew Waterhouse, Professor of Enology and Interim Chair, Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California, Davis (Waterhouse, 2007) points out factual data regarding sulfites. As aforementioned, “…all wines contain sulfites. Yeast naturally produces sulfites during fermentation so there is only a rare wine which contains none”. Second, you may have heard the rumor that wines made outside of the U.S. consist of little or no sulfites. This statement is simply untrue. I have listened to friends and read reports where they talk about drinking wine in France and Italy and rarely feel the [ailing] effects, whereas they drink wine in the U.S. and all hell breaks loose with their olfactory senses and other surfacing symptoms (e.g. headaches and nausea). According to Waterhouse, only the U.S. requires a “sulfite” warning label but 99% of all winemakers in all countries including France, Italy, Spain, Austria, Chile, etc. add sulfites to the wine process. Survey studies conclude that European wines contain an equal amount of sulfites to U.S. wines, which average 80 mg per litter.

Red Wine Composition

“There is something in red wine that causes headaches”, says Waterhouse, “but the cause has not yet been discovered”. So if its not sulfites causing the allergic reactions, what is it? Well, seeing that wine consists of a plethora of components, its hard to pinpoint which component is the culprit. Wine composition consists of many minor components, as identified below (Waterhouse, UC Davis, 2007). Three of the most prominent are Glycerol (yeast fermentation), Acid (fruit acids that are organic to the grape) and Phenols (responsible for wine color, bitterness, astringency and some odors and flavors).

Red Wine Composition

Culprits

Tannin, on one hand, is a chemical substance, otherwise known as phenolic compounds (referenced as Phenols from the above graphic), which are derived from dark grape skins, seeds and stems as well as oak barrels that gives the wine its color, flavor and structure. Wines with evident tannins will produce a dry, puckery taste sensation, and we refer to these wines as being “tannic”. Tannins are our friends, for they prevent oxidation and are in part responsible for a red wine’s aging potential. Wines that are particularly high in tannins include Bordeaux, Barolo, Barbaresco, Cabernet & Syrah (Shiraz) varietals. Some of the less tannic wines include varietals like French Burgundy, Dolcetto, Barbera, Pinot Noir, Beaujolais and Tempranillo.

Some experiments suggest that tannins cause a release of serotonin, which can cause headaches for people that typically suffer migraines. If you are one of those people that don’t suffer from migraines, but still suffer illness from drinking red wine, this experiment is unfounded, for tannins are also found in foods like tea, chocolate and soy, yet people do not complain about headaches when consuming the later.

Then we have Histamines (An amino-based compound), which are abundant in many food products, and wine is no exception. However, the level histamines in grape skins are not high enough to cause problems for most.

Subsequently, we have alcoholic impurities such as “Cogeners“, which are organic molecules that develop during fermentation. Wines with higher concentrations of Cogeners are more prone to cause illness and an interesting fact is that lower quality wines will typically have higher levels of Cogeners. Premium wines are much less likely to have impurities in their final product, so avoid low quality wines at all costs. On the other hand, many will argue that Cogeners are not to blame; a compound named acetaldehyde more likely causes it. This compound naturally converts into acetic acid and if you are one of those people that experience hangovers, your body might have difficulties converting acetaldehyde into acetic acid.

Now we move on to Tyramines, another amino-based compound. This agent occurs naturally during the fermentation process and is a compound found not only in wine, but also in alcoholic beverages, food, beer and ale. Food high in Tyramines include aged cheeses, grapes, figs, pineapple, plums, dried fruits, avocados, shrimp sauces, processed & cured meats (e.g. prosciutto, salami and pastrami), soy & teriyaki sauces, nuts, and chocolate, just to name a few.

As you read the above list, do you see an interesting pattern forming? What intrigues me is that I could not help but notice that many of these food items are something you might find on a hors d’oeuvres platter at any social function. Can we assume that indulging too many Tyramines in one sitting may cause illness? It may be a far stretch, but none-the-less something to consider, but my intuition tells me that its not the wine to blame, but rather, a combination of wine and foods rich in Tyramines that might cause repercussions for some.

Conclusion

We can conclude that we use sulfites for many purposes; not only is it a naturally occurring process in the wine making process, but it is a preservative found in many foods. Based on facts, sulfites are one of many components in wine, and it is inappropriate to attribute sulfites as the solitary component that causes illness. Simply stated, we should not blame sulfites as the lone culprit. Tannins, Histamines, Cogeners and Tyramines also play a part in sensibilities.

There are, however, a few small recommendations that I would propose in order reduce (or eliminate) the aftereffects that some incur. My first suggestion is to opt for premium wine selections. These wines are much less likely to have impurities in their final product, so you will do your self a favor by avoiding substandard products.

Second, when drinking wine, reduce your intake of foods high in Tyramines. Additionally, drink less tannic wines, which include varietals like French Burgundy, Dolcetto, Barbera, Pinot Noir, Beaujolais and Tempranillo. It is also important to drink a lot of water while consuming alcohol, and above all, drink in moderation.

As always, I would love to hear your comments on the subject, regardless if you agree or disagree with my commentary, so please respond below.

Pamela Heiligenthal

References:

More, Daniel, M.D. (2007, April 28). Sulfite Allergy, About.com. [Online]. Available:
http://allergies.about.com/od/foodallergies/a/sulfites.htm [2007, May 4].

Waterhouse, Andrew L. (2007, March). Sulfites in Wine, Department of Viticulture
and Enology, University of California, Davis. [Online]. Available: http://waterhouse.ucdavis.edu/winecomp/so2.htm [2007, May 4].

This post was written by:

- who has written 291 posts on Enobytes Wine Online.

Editor and co-founder of Enobytes.com, Pamela is a former restaurant manager, wine buyer, and sommelier with WSET, CMS & Center for Wine Origins certification. She has contributed to or been quoted by various publications, including the Los Angeles Times, Sommelier Journal, Vegetarian Times, VIV Magazine, UC-Berkeley Astrobiology News, The Washington Post, the Associated Press, and USA Today. True to her roots, she seeks varietal and appellation integrity and is always passionate about finding the next great bottle of wine.

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31 Responses to “Wine & Sulfites: The Truth About Red Wine Headaches”

  1. Betteann says:

    Thank you, I appreciate your article on the various culprits for wine headaches. I am prone to migraines and I am very careful when I drink wine. I never have blamed the sulfites but have thought the histamines a problem. I was told once that red wines from Italy should be safe and surprisingly most do not give me a headache. I have slowly been experimenting with other reds like French and have not gotten a headache, as you mentioned they were not ‘cheap’ wines.

    I can also get a severe headache from white wine and I will know within minutes of the first sip. If my sinus quickly dry and I get a ‘stuffy nose’, I will not finish that glass. Again, the better wine, the less likely I have trouble with it. Pinot Grigio is one of my favorites.

    As you mentioned tyramines, I did not know the common thread there, but I have learned that those foods you mentioned need to be consumed in moderation or not at all. I often thought that they were laced with MSG for flavoring (Monsodium Glutamate-a definite migraine trigger)

    So thank you again for putting some names to the ingredients that can spoil an enjoyable event.

    Betteann

  2. Pamela says:

    Thank you for your comments Betteann! I can certainly empathize with your situation. I too have heard that migraine sufferers experience fewer repercussions from drinking French and Italian wines. It is hard to depict why this is; it could it be the difference between American vs. French oak barrels used to store the wines? Only further research will determine the outcome. Unfortunately, funding is slim to none when it comes to researching the subject at hand. Believe me, I will be one of the first to investigate the subject if funding becomes available.

    Until then, keep on track with drinking quality wines. I really give you credit – most people I know that experience repercussions simply give up on drinking white (or red) wine, and that is a shame. Wine should be enjoyable, and simply stated, many can find a wine that not only fits their palette but also abolishes implications. I commend your efforts of moving forward! If you like Pinot Grigio, I have a few American Pinot Gris suggestions (Italy’s translation, Pinto Grigio). Try these suggestions and let me know how you fair:

    Benton Lane Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley, Oregon (retail $16.00)
    Ponzi Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley, Oregon (retail $17.00)
    Eyrie Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley, Oregon (retail ($16.00)
    MacMurray Pinot Gris, Russian River, CA (retail $18.00)

    These suggestions, paired with drinking in moderation, drinking plenty of water and limiting foods rich in Tyramines should do the trick. I am interested in your progress so please keep me posted on your results!

    Regards,
    Pamela Heiligenthal

    • Dionne Nichols says:

      Thanks for the great information, Pamela. I used to suffer from seemingly random migraines. Because of my background in science, I was pretty good at self-diagnosing issues I was having with my body. Therefore I had established a pattern of migraines after eating certain foods. I did not know the connection, but my doctor did. She recommended I avoid a whole list of foods for a while. When I tried to eat any of the foods on this list, I would have a migraine. This list contained foods that were high in tyramine. These foods have different levels, so I had to experiment a little to find out which ones were safe.

      When I was a teenager I developed chemical sensitivities to preservatives such as sulfites and nitrites. Processed meat became a thing of the past for me. Same with dried fruit. These seem to bother me the most.

      Allergies are tricky (unless it causes an anaphalactic reaction ie. breathing difficulties) due to what is known as toxic load. Once your toxic load has been reached, even a mild sensitivity can tip the load and cause a reaction. In the last 10 years the amount of toxins we are exposed to daily has more than tripled. Some toxins accumulate in the body, therefore requiring a very small amount to become the tipping point.

      Reducing consumption of processed foods, eating mostly organic meat, veggies and fruit, washing your veggies and fruit before eating will reduce the amount of daily toxins we injest, therefore reducing the potential for developing allergies in the first place.

      Hope your readers find this information helpful.

      • enobytes says:

        Eating fresh organic products and reducing processed foods seems like solid advice, Dionne, thanks for sharing your experiences. You have piqued my curiosity regarding foods rich with tyramines. Since I called out a number of them in the post, I assume there is some correlation to my reasoning and assumptions…besides processed meats and dried fruits were there other food items that set you off? It’s all in good research. Thanks for sharing your story Dionne.

  3. enobytes says:

    I wanted to follow up with this story since I came across a new research project that could help consumers avoid headaches from foods and wine. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is funding the project and researchers in California are reporting development of a fast, inexpensive test suitable for home use that could help millions of people avoid headaches that may follow consumption of certain wines, cheese, chocolate, and other foods with high levels of tyramine and histamine concentrations. They found that the device accurately measured the biogenic amines present in the beverages in less than five minutes.

    Full Story:
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/10/071001125645.htm

  4. Rexasaurrus says:

    That will help. Is there any estimate as to when this product will show up on shelves to be purchased?

  5. enobytes says:

    The devise was originally developed to look for organic molecules (e.g. amino acids) on future Mars explorations; the sensor is expected to be in use in 2013. I am not sure when the home devise will be available for consumers, but I anticipate and expect around the same time frame. It sounds like the home devise will be built so that a consumer could upload it into a handheld devise (e.g. PDA) which should be pretty handy seeing that it allows consumers to instantly test food or beverages for the presence of toxins at home or while dining at a restaurant.

  6. enobytes says:

    Update – Mathies predicts an analyzer of this type should be available in a couple of years from a new company called Microchip Biotechnologies Inc. located in Dublin, California.

    More information about our breaking story here.

    As an FYI, the University of California Berkeley Solar System Exploration “In the News” headlined our article here.

  7. wine glasses says:

    My personal taste in wine varies with the time of year, location and influence of friends. I recently discoverd a fantastic house wine served at a local Italian restaurant that is incredible for the price. One thing that helps any wine is to serve it at the right temperature using the most suitable glasses.

  8. I experienced a two years ago, on an airplane to London, a sudden and violent physical reaction, after 30 plus years of drinking wine all over the world. Every single part of my body was hot as if on fire, and covered in a patchy rash that was just another place to itch, and no amount of cold showers, cold cloths, water immersions, or dermatological skin surface creams gave anything other than temporary relief. Then an allergist prescribed a pill called Hydroxyzine (25mgs) and I only take one every four to five days with no side effects whatsoever. I was back to normal in just an hour or so and many wine clients that have explained the same experience have since thanked me for the info and now are happily drinking wine again. Pass it on !

  9. tony botsman says:

    Hello Pamela, The ‘benchmark’ study by Dr Wantke in Vienna is often cited with reference to the high points of the range of values for Histamine however the range is vast eg the white wine range is 3 to 120, the Champagne range 15to 670 and for Reds 60 to 3800!(all Micrograms/L

    One of the obvious questions is whether the range relates to varieties and if not to what other determinants? In my lay but experienced view we should have established at least median values before putting too much emphasis on the higher range for Red wines, what do you think?

    Cheers, Tony Botsman Chief Enthusiast, Mundivini “Brilliant wines you’ve never heard of!”

  10. enobytes says:

    Tony, I could not agree with you more and thanks for your comments. This will take a lot of research to get to some obvious conclusions. I don’t believe anyone has really touched the surface on this subject, but my hypothesis is that this could tie into the chemical and microbiological changes that take place during the winemaking process.

    Since writing this article, I had a conversation with UC Berkeley Professor, Dr. Richard Mathies (responsible for prototyping the Mars Organic Analyzer (MOA)): check this out for a good read: http://enobytes.org/wine_blog/2008/03/31/mars-device-to-ease-adverse-wine-effects/.

    He plans to research amino-based compounds, which he believes ties into the adverse reactions some have while drinking wine. Unfortunately, his project requires additional funding.

    Cheers, Pamela

  11. Sandra Pistone says:

    My husband and I attended a local wine tasting tonight. He was drinking white wines as he often complains of headaches after drinking red wine. When we arrived at the restaurant after the tasting, he was really suffering from a bad headache and stuffiness. He began drinking water and after several glasses, his headache subsided and he was feeling quite well again. I read your article to him, and the part dealing with quality wines really hit the mark. This tasting was not a premium quality selection. They were new wineries that had come into being in the past few years. We live in Nebraska, and I have yet to find what I would call a premium wine in our state. Thanks for the information about the other substances that could be adding to his discomfort. I love wine, and it seems so unfair that he cannot join me in finishing a good bottle of red wine.

  12. enobytes says:

    Hi Sandra, thanks for the comments and I’m glad we could provide some insight on the subject.

  13. Wayne says:

    My wife is affected by sulfites and has been a couple few years now. So we drink only foreign red or organic red (we’re in washington state, usa).

    So 2 hours ago, we opened a bottle of red italian wine, puglia, and before she finished her glass (probably 8oz) she quit as a headache came on fast and hard.

    She is drinking lots of water as I type. The label says “contains sulfites” as does every usa bottled bottle of wine does, but we figured this one was only complying w/ usa stuff and put that on the label.
    Other foreign bottled wines have not affected her this way though “we” know if yeast was involved there will be sulfites. EXTRA added sulfites are a large problem though and thus she switched to organic or foreign.

    Any home remedies known for when one finds out too late that the sulfite level may be too high for a particular individual besides water? I will google the hydro ??? referred to above ..

    thanks and cheers,
    waynebeer and wife

  14. Geoffrey Cornish says:

    Most Europeans particularly women, drink real ‘still’ or ‘sparkling’ mineral water as they drink wine to relieve the onset of such potential reactions as dehydration which is the main cause of most types of headaches and hangovers. By this I mean real mineral water, not just bottled water.
    In my experience French, Spanish, and Italian waiters who have had professional training will almost always automatically ask which you prefer without questioning you as to whether or not you actually want mineral water. Whether any formal scientific or chemical research into why this is so common or such a widely practiced aspect of good “service” I am not aware. Perhaps a community member with hoteliers’ training can comment.

  15. Pete says:

    I can’t attest to any formal scientific or chemical research which would back up any claims, but one thing for certain is that I drink plenty of mineral water during alcoholic consumption and it helps tremendously with any after affects. I usually drink an 8oz. glass of mineral water between drinks, which really helps with dehydration which seems to be the cause of headaches and such.

  16. Dyan Clarke-Hill says:

    Hello.Thank you for the article,it is most informative. Five years ago I had a back injury which left me unable to walk. I was prescribed Celebrex for my pain. As a result I developed an alergy to sulfate.I get a blistery rash and gastro-intestinal problems. I was always able to enjoy wine before taking this drug. Just this year I so wanted to enjoy a class of wine. I had not had wine for years. I bought one of those little cartons that has about three glasses of wine per container. I nursed the wine and added ice to it as well. It took me around eight hours to drink the little carton. The next day I was listless,had broken out in a rash and spent alot of time in the bathroom. I have yet to find any organic wine in my area that does not contain sulfites. I have to read EVERYTHING I buy to see if it has sulfate in it. Even shampoos have it. At times I cannot afford the expensive shampoos that do not contain sulfate. Thus I must use a regular shampoo and it itches terrible. I get soars and a crust on my whole scalp. It is no way to live. Any one know of a name of an organic wine I can buy that does not contain sulfites? Thanks for letting me vent,Dyan.

    • Dionne Nichols says:

      Go to a really good wine store and ask about organic wines that are low in sulfites. Because they are naturally occurring in wine and beer (from fermentation) you may not be able to have either wine or beer from your allergy to sulfites. I am sensitive to sulfites and tyramine, so red wine has been off my list for a long time. First it was headaches from the tyramine intolerance. Now my hand breaks out in a rash that itches like crazy. That is from the sulfites.

  17. Karyn says:

    When I drink red wine immediately, my cheeks pucker really bad, and my nose gets stopped up. Is this normal? I am not a wine drinker but doctor oz suggested very red wine for the antitoxins or whatever it is in the dark wine that is supposed to be good for us, but when I drink this stuff my nose is stuffy, which is a turn off. I am drinking a merlot made by robert mondavi, 2006 private selection. Should I be drinking another kind?

  18. wayne says:

    Karen, you may be allergic to sulfites. talk to your doctor, etc.
    You may do better with an organic red wine or some foreign wines where they do not add extra sulfites to the wine which is what happens with most regular american red wines.
    Wayne

  19. enobytes says:

    Karyn, your comment on Merlot sparked my interest. You might find this follow up report conducted by Dr. Mathies interesting, which suggests Merlot has excessive amounts of Tyramine, which is a compound that causes problems for some: http://enobytes.org/wine_blog/2008/03/31/mars-device-to-ease-adverse-wine-effects/. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been enough research in this area to pinpoint the exact cause of wine intolerance.

    Regardless, take Wayne’s advice and talk to your doctor. It could be a plethora of different culprits, from amino-based compounds (e.g. histamines and tyramines), to Cogeners (e.g. impurities) or Sulfites but don’t give up on red wine yet – you might want to try a number of different varieties and see if that helps. You might want to start with less-tannic wines like Dolcetto, Barbera, Pinot Noir, Beaujolais and Tempranillo and/or an organic wine. Hope this helps and let us know how it turns out.

  20. Tim says:

    Really good information. My few experiences with wine up until this point in my life had not given me such a depth of knowledge as this article present. Thank you!

  21. shane says:

    I drink Merlot and Cabernet but sometimes I get really flush I wonder if it is because of sulfites?

  22. Geoffrey Cornish says:

    With decreasing wine consumption becoming a common situation in several EU countries, the European Health Authority recently released a study of many individual wine and health studies on reactions to sulfites and many other chemical compounds found in wine. The takeaway was that they were unable to find a single piece of evidence to show that sulfites cause any of these allergic reactions you can read about above, and that much higher quantities are of sulfites are commonly found in many foods we all eat every day Wine Spectator reported this same story a while ago too.

  23. Mens Work Shirts says:

    I had same problems link Sandra Pistone’s husband a couple years ago. Having a hard headache after drinking a wine really pissed me off. I’ve meet my doctor and he said that i need to increase the time between sip. I’ve tried that and it’s working. From that time I can enjoy wine as much as i could. Just need to follow regular timing of sip.

  24. Nancy says:

    I just returned from a trip to Italy. My girlfriends and I drank wine everyday and evening. While we enjoy wine on occasion, none of us are regualr drinkers. We did not expereince headaches or any “hang over” symptoms for the entire trip. There is definately something in american wines that is not in Italian wines. I also notice that most imported wines are bottled in the US and have had sulfites added. I am now a believer in organic wines and wines shipped directly from their country of origin. Caio!

  25. Ian Hickinbotham oenologist says:

    I have always understood histamine in dry red wines was due to certain ‘wild’ bacteria doing the desirable secondary malo-lactic fermentation that softens young dry red wines – according to Swiss research.
    Forty years ago, the problem manifested itself in the form of sales of 9 bottles of white to 1 bottle of red in the middle of Melbourne’s winter!
    The Australian Wine Research Institute was commended.

  26. Stephanie says:

    I get migraines from sulfites. However, I quickly found that I can tolerate a small glass of dry red but not white wine. I found out later that reds have less sulfites. I stay away from sulfited fruits and coconut like the plague! I also have to stay away from garlic, onions and hard cheeses since these also give me mild headaches. The more consumed the worse the headache. So for anyone out there that tolerates red better than white wine it is probably the sulfites. If it is red wine that causes your headaches it is probably some other compounds specific to reds.

  27. Pamela says:

    Thanks for your comments Stephanie!

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