Sulfites & Wine Headaches

Sulfites & Wine Headaches

Q: Are sulfites giving me wine headaches?

A: Probably not. 

Q: Then why does red wine make my head hurt so much?

A: It’s probably because you are dehydrated. There’s a <10% chance may also have a reaction to the histamines and/or tannins.

Soooo wine headaches. We’ve all been there and they are no joke! But what causes wine headaches? 

Is it sulfites, tannins, “the red,” or something else?

Firstly, sulfites are naturally occurring in grapes and in wine. Despite the “sulfite free” and “contains sulfites” labels. “Sulfite free” in the U.S. just means no added sulfites. “Contains sulfites” just means that sulfites were added in addition to the naturally occurring sulfites.

So why would winemakers add sulfites to wine? Well, sulfites act as both a preservative and anti-bacterial agent. To make wine last longer, and to stop icky bacteria from disrupting otherwise yummy wine, sulfites are added.

Secondly, white wine has significantly more sulfites than red wine. This is because white wine typically has higher sugar levels. Sugar attracts bacteria which can harm the wine. Sulfite’s anti-bacterial properties come in handy here. White wine also has higher sugar levels because white wine typically doesn’t have tannins like red and rose wines do. Tannins are a natural preservative. So without tannins, white wine relies on added sulfites for additional preservation.

But just because sulfites are added to wine doesn’t mean they’re bad to you or that they’re causing your wine headache.

In the U.S., wines may only have up to 350 sulfites in parts per million (ppm). As you can see from the Wine Folly graphic below, several common foods have way more sulfites than 350 ppm, including charcuterie and brined foods. The way I see it, if you can eat charcuterie, you can drink wine without fear of a wine headache.

Now there is a tiny part of the population that has a sulfite allergy - somewhere like 5% or less. People with asthma are at a disproportionately higher risk of sulfite allergies than people without asthma.

However, because so few people are allergic to sulfites, but so many people experience awful wine headaches - particularly when it comes to red wine - the question remains: 

Why does red wine give me a headache?

As mentioned above, red wine headaches are probably a reaction to tannins, histamines, or alcohol. Histamines and alcohol are the primary culprits. Histamines (opposite of antihistamine to counter allergies) causes allergic reactions such as headaches, hives, runny nose, etc. Those with allergies are all too aware of this. 

Alcohol may also be the culprit. Typically, red wine has more alcohol than rose or white wines. Alcohol can lead to dehydration which can lead to headaches. Make sure to stay hydrated and well fed when drinking red wine - it will most likely take care of that headache problem for you!

For those of you that identify with that 5% of people with sulfite allergies…

Try these alternatives to red wine without the added sulfites:

Myth Busters

  1. Myth: European wines don’t contain sulfites. False. We often glamorize non-American products as being superior in health, taste, etc. There may be some merit to that statement, but in this case, it is false. In fact, European wines do contain sulfites - unless they don’t. In which case “sulfite-free” or natural/biodynamic wine will be printed on the label or identified by reviewing the wine’s tech sheet (found on the winery’s website).
  2. Red wine has more sulfites than white wine. False. (See above!)
  3. Natural wine is healthier for me because it doesn’t contain sulfites. Perhaps, but there isn’t a robust body of research confirming or denying this statement.

Do you pay attention to sulfites in wine? Have you noticed a difference in wines that do and do not contain sulfites?

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