What are Sulfites in Wine: Exploring the Role and Impact of Sulfites Side Effects in Wine

What are Sulfites in Wine: Exploring the Role and Impact of Sulfites Side Effects in Wine

McKenzie Hagan |

We’ve all been there. We have a lovely night out, we get dinner, we chat, we open up a bottle of wine, and then the next day we feel terrible. We do a quick google and before we know it, we’re inundated with articles suggesting we could have a sulfite allergy. But, what are sulfites? And why are they being blamed for our hangovers?

While you may have noticed "contains sulfites" on wine bottle labels, do we really have anything to worry about? Could these mysterious ingredients be harming our health?

In this article, we discuss the reality surrounding sulfites in wine. From what they actually are to why they are prevalent in the food industry, we'll debunk some myths. Hint: Sulfites probably aren’t to blame for your red wine headaches.

What Are Sulfites?

Sulfites are food and drink additives. They are added to help preserve taste and color, thus keeping food fresher for longer.

While some foods have naturally occurring sulfites, they are mostly found in processed foods. This is due to their antibacterial nature and antioxidant properties, which help to stop food and drink oxidization.

Adding these preservatives to certain foods, drinks, and condiments is essential for lengthening shelf life. It's a common practice in many food industries, so you will notice "may contain sulfites" on your food labels. However, if you are trying to avoid sulfites for whatever reason, they may also be listed in other ways, so look out for:

  • Sulfur dioxide — it's not a sulfite, but it's a chemical oxide that's closely related
  • Potassium bisulfite or potassium metabisulfite
  • Sodium bisulfite, sodium metabisulfite or sodium sulfite

Are There Sulfites in Wine?

what are sulfites: Usual Wines bottle on a table

Popularized in the '70s, many winemakers have a practice of adding sulfites to their wines. The sulfites are used to prevent spoilage, stop oxidation, and halt fermentation prematurely. They're usually added in during the fermentation process of wine production.

While sulfites are commonly found in wine due to natural sulfite occurrence in wine grapes, the actual percentage is very small. 

Because sulfite inclusion is highly regulated around the world, any wine with over 10 parts per million (ppm) has to legally display "contains sulfites" on the label. Therefore, if your bottle doesn’t have this warning, your wine may contain sulfites, but in minute quantities.

Sulfites in Processed Foods

Wine gets a bit of bad rap when it comes to sulfites. While all wine contains sulfites, either naturally or through human hands, the amount is very small. However, processed foods, especially those intended to have a long shelf life, have much higher levels of sulfites present.

Dried fruits, such as dried apricots, cherries, raisins, and other presumably "healthy" fruit snacks, have 10 times the amount of sulfites than wine. Pouring a good handful of dried fruits onto your morning oatmeal is more likely to cause an adverse reaction for those with sensitivity than a nice glass of Merlot.

Furthermore, perishable fresh foods like shrimp and other seafood is often treated with sulfites for preservation. These do not need to be displayed on the label, so if you feel you may have a sulfite allergy be aware.

While it can be difficult to avoid sulfites completely, in 1986 the FDA made it illegal to add sulfites to any fruits and vegetables which are commonly eaten raw. So if all else fails, that shiny red apple should be a safe bet.

Understanding Sulfite Sensitivity and Sulfite Allergy

Unfortunately, some very unlucky people suffer from sulfite allergies. This means that consuming sulfites can cause an allergic reaction. While this may be as minor as a rash, side effects can be incredibly serious. While some may suffer from body swelling, others get intense stomach pain. Some sulfite allergies can even be life-threatening.

However, the FDA has stated that only 1% of the U.S. population suffers from sulfite sensitivity. Furthermore, 5% of this minority are asthmatic, meaning if you suffer from asthma you may be slightly more at risk, but if you don’t it’s unlikely you have anything to worry about.

A common myth that still floats around the wine community is that sulfites cause dreaded wine headaches (even from the best red wines!). However, seeing as how uncommon sulfite sensitivity is, adverse side effects caused by drinking a nice Cabernet or Grenache are far more likely to be caused by alcohol content of wine.

In fact, red wines have less sulfites than white or rosé wines. Because red wines have higher levels of tannins, which have preservative qualities, they have less sulfites added to them during wine production.

Other wine compounds, such as histamine, tyramine, and flavonoids, may contribute to that sore head the morning after. These are naturally occurring ingredients and are unavoidable when it comes to drinking wine.

As a friendly reminder, if you have any suspicion you are allergic to sulfites, it’s a good idea to visit your doctor or a licensed allergist. 

How To Avoid Sulfites in Wine

As we’ve stated, the percentage of sulfites present in wine is relatively low, especially when compared to dried fruit and other processed food. However, if you are part of the 1% suffering from sulfite sensitivity and are looking for ways to reduce sulfite intake, there are a few ways to do this.

First of all, if you suffer from asthma or have any reason to believe that your allergy could be life-threatening, you must be diligent in avoiding processed foods and should probably pass on wine. Most beers do not contain sulfites, so they are a safer bet.

However, if you suspect wine may be causing minor reactions, like a rash or diarrhea, and you suspect you could handle a very small amount of sulfites, then look out for organic wines. They should contain less sulfites than a non-organic wine.

As we said earlier, reds tend to contain less sulfites. But if you love white wines and really don’t fancy going over to the dark side, another tactic is to lower your wine intake. Because each glass will contain a small amount of sulfites, drinking two large glasses rather than one could lead to higher levels of sulfites. 

Usual Wines comes in single-serving bottles, which makes sticking to one glass of organic, additive-free vino effortless. Check out our selection of sustainably farmed, small-batch wine.

Busting Sulfite Myths Once and for All

Usual Wines bottle with scattered petals

While wine does contain sulfites, it's unlikely that your nightly glass of wine is causing you any harm. Because sulfite sensitivity is so uncommon, any red wine headaches are more likely to be caused by alcohol intake.

However, if you do suspect you have a sensitivity, remember you would be better off limiting your intake of dried fruits, condiments, and other preserved foods than cutting out wine.

After all, wine only has 10 ppm of sulfites, and sharing a bottle of wine between friends is good for the soul. Who ever made memories sharing a bag of dried apricots?