Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Sulfites - Can't live with them...

...but, most of all, we cannot live without them.

If you are a winemaker, wine merchant or even a wine geek, sooner or later you will hear one or more of the following sentences from people once they discover that you are in the business:

1. "I only buy wines from France, because they do not contain any sulfites."
2. "I cannot drink red wines because all the sulfites give me headaches."
3. "I buy only organic wines (or grapes), because they are sulfite-free."

After a while, these well-meaning but misinformed comments begin to sound like the "wha-wha-wha" noise that the adults speak in "Peanuts" television cartoons.

About two times a year I feel the need to climb my sulfite soapbox to rant and address the issue after an avalanche of these statements flooding my ears (Once I finish, I usually need a long ladder to climb down, as the box tends to get higher and I have short legs.)

To the person who says "I only buy wines from France, because they do not contain sulfites (SO2)" -- How unfortunate for you, since French wines do in fact have sulfites! The only difference between French and the domestic wines is that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires a warning label on U.S.-made wines specifying that they contain SO2. The people in Europe think we are ridiculous with our label regulations and limitations. Moreover, we tend to think that where there is a warning label, it must mean something is terribly dangerous. "Danger Will Robinson!" We wave our arms left and right and up and down, parodying the robot from the 1960's TV show "Lost in Space." “Warning! Warning! Alien sulfites approaching!”

This danger threatens a very small handful of individuals who are sulfite-sensitive asthmatics. Chances are great that if you are sulfite-sensitive, you already know that sulfites have the potential to trigger fatal respiratory problems. You already know it isn't just wine that you must avoid but food items such as concentrated fruit juice, dried fruits, ketchup and other condiments, trail mixes, jams and jellies, sausages, bacon, potato chips, instant or dehydrated potatoes, dried mushrooms, textured vegetable proteins, and the caramel coloring found in packaged food mixes such as gravy, noodle and rice mixes. Even natural and pure foods like onions (mostly water but with very high levels of sulfur), egg yolks, garlic...shall I keep going?

Since 1987 FDA says that food items containing more than 10 parts per million (ppm) of sulfites must have a warning label. Interesting that the regulators set a maximum limit of 350 ppm for sulfites in alcoholic beverages, yet they allow processed foods up to 6,000 ppm. So for breakfast, if you can pork out on a satisfying plate of eggs, hashbrown O'Briens covered with ketchup, bacon, sausage, and toast smeared with jam and wash it down with a glass of orange juice, then you can have a glass of wine for dinner.

To the person who says "I can't drink red wines because all the sulfites give me headaches": I hate to burst the sweet pink bubble of all the white-zinfandel drinkers out there, but off-dry white wines have the most sulfites added of all wines. If you don't believe it, then talk to any winemaker who spends time in the lab of his/her winery doing SO2 readings. Red wine has the least amount of sulfites because the tannins from the grape skins and seeds acts as a preservative; little or no SO2 needed. It is the red grape skins that give the red wines their beautiful rich color. White wines are not fermented in the skin like red wines are, so they need some preserving assistance, and that is where the sulfites come in. The total SO2 found in wine was analyzed by the official BATF laboratory, and their average findings were 40 ppm for red wines, 60 ppm for white and 80 ppm for sparkling.

Many people complain they get headaches after drinking red wines. I have been one of them , in fact, and it hasn't been from over-indulgence, either. “The red wine headache (RWH) is a real if poorly understood phenomenon,” notes an article published in the Harvard Health Letter. Harvard did some studies and there are two thoughts to this RWH syndrome. One is that the headaches are triggered by the natural tannins in wine; the other is that the headaches are brought on by histamines in wine.

Tannins are the flavonoids in wine that make one’s mouth pucker. Researchers conducted several well-controlled experiments showing that tannins cause the release of serotonin, and high levels of serotonin can cause headaches. However, it is rare to hear complaints about tea, soy, coffee or chocolate headaches, which all contain tannins. If you have ever squeezed a tea bag of orange and black pekoe tea releasing the most bitter and concentrated part of the tea, then you have seen tannins. The inside white bitter pith of a bananna peel? Tannins.

Histamines are 20 - 200% higher in red wine than in white. The natural histamines from the grapes can stimulate an allergy-type response throughout the body, but usually it is the most noticeable in the nose and sinus areas. I used to get a stuffy nose when I first started drinking red wine. I would take a anti-histamine that didn't make me drowsy, such as Sudafed, and it solved my stuffiness and headaches. However, like with some non-life threatening allergies, sooner or later you can become immune. At this point I can drink red wine with no effects to my sinuses, so perhaps I have achieved histamine immunity.

To the person who says, often with pious self-assurance, "I buy only organic wines (or grapes), because they are sulfite-free: " Ummm...are you sure about that? Remember, FDA says wines with more than 10 ppm of SO2 must state on their label, "Contains Sulfites." While a wine may be made with organic grapes, it doesn't mean that the wine is going to have zero sulfites. The fact is, SO2 is a naturally occurring by-product of fermentation, primarily coming from the grape skins. Yeast also naturally produces sulfites during fermentation. And did you know the human body produces about 1 gram of sulfites of its own per day? The soil where we grow our fruits and vegetables contains sulfites. The tree that you hug has sulfites in the bark. Don't get me wrong, I have been known to hug a few trees in my lifetime, and whenever possible I try to purchase foods that are organically grown. My meat consumption has gone down considerably in my diet. I shop for hormone-growth free and organic meats. I also recycle, and, yes, rescue stray cats and dogs.

It is my opinion that while many winemakers are committed to organic farming, they are not ready to abandon sulfites in the cellar. Sulfur itself is a yellow powder. It is a soil and plant nutrient which happens to retard mold growth -- and mold is an arch-enemy of the wine-maker. Sulfur has been used in Europe for many years, and some of the first vineyards in the U.S., dating back 100 and more years ago, used sulfur as a powder spray on grapevines to avoid mildew damage. While sulfur is used less these days, many vineyards might be sprayed with sulfur early in the growing season. Little sulfur will be found on the harvested grapes, and practically none remains after fermentation. When you consider other fungicides and pesticides, sulfur is one of the safer alternatives. So what does the organic proponents really have against this product? It's natural!

It is important to know that wines must have less than 1 mg/liter to have a label that says "No Sulfites." According to FDA, an organic wine is now defined as "a wine made from organically grown grapes and without any added sulfites." However, with this restriction, wines that have been called "organic wines" must now be referred to as "wines made from organic grapes" (or organically grown grapes), as they are allowed to contain up to 100 ppm of added sulfites from the winery.

To sum it all up, I think the FDA position on sulfites is extreme. I also think this label regulation has caused confusion, hysteria and misinformation among wine consumers and potential wine consumers. But here's the kicker and some food for thought: Sulfites are not the most dangerous substance in a bottle of wine. Has anybody ever considered alcohol? It is a known fact that alcohol has done more damage to the body directly and indirectly than what sulfites will ever do.

Yoo hoo! Bring me my soapbox ladder, please.

10 comments:

GollyGumDrops said...

Here in the UK we're getting just as silly. I expect 'Contains Grapes' to appear on labels soon.

Anonymous said...

Excellent rant! I've been sensitive to sulfites for many years. I knew it before any of my doctors knew it. Someone like me does know almost everything that contains sulfites, but I've been a green tea drinker for years. I've switched to black recently and I'm breaking out in blisters. I had know idea that black tea had tannins...just didn't occur to me which led me to your rant.

Good read!

Anonymous said...

I agree that sulfites aren't the likely culprit. I get bad sniffles the next morning whenever I drink red wine (I'm going to find out soon whether this is restricted to cheap wine), and I get an instant bad reaction to any white wine or champagne.
I get worse 'Red Wine Headache' from apple cider. I have yet to figure out what chemical they all have in common - more in white than red - so I can know what to avoid. I love red wine!!! I don't have a problem with every red wine, but I have to be so careful...

andreeak said...

PLEASE HELP! Does Arizona Iced Tea (Lemon/ Green Tea w/ Ginseng & Honey) have sulfites in it? Also, I continue to break out in hives and have for quite awhile. I have already had my blood tests, allergy tests (including challenge) and my allergist told me I did not have a problem. Why are the hives continuing to persist?

Please email me at andreeak@eden.rutgers.edu

Also put in the heading "Sulfites"

Simplee Iron CDA Rentals 2009 said...

can someone tell me if they know of walla walla wineries that are sulfite free, or at least organic? thanks

Adri said...

Wonderful, I am allergic to sulfites but always wonder why my reaction to white wine was more severe than to red. Good to know. Allergies or not I cannot avoid wine. Thank you for the information.

debra said...

Thanks for your informative post. I've recently developed a severe reaction to sulfites (my lips blow up like sausages and the inside my mouth gets puffy).
I've been trying to drink wines that say they are organic and have minimal sulfites but am amazed at how many other foods also contain sulfites (and often you can't tell from the label).

I too can not give up wine--- so I'm determined to find a short list of good reds that don't put me over the edge sulfite-wise. Suggestions??

lukapvo said...

great article. but sudafed is not an antihistamine. it is pseudoephedrine, which is a decongestant and has no antihistamine effects. i am an allergist/immunologist and this comment makes me want to get on my soapbox.

Amy Vanderzanden said...

I do not get headaches from red wine but i get a very red face right away and have recently started have vomitting also after only 1 glass. I don't do this with any other alcohol. Is this a sulfite thing?!! I love red wine and don't want to not be able to drink it anymore :(

Amy V said...

I do not get the headache, which is strange since I am someone who suffers from migraines. But, I have all of a sudden started getting a very flushed red face with 1 glass of red wine. Recently as I was drinking my second glass of red wine I became very nauseated and vomitted. I don't do this with other alcohlic beverages. I am scared to try wine again, but LOVE it darnit. Could this be a sulfite thing?!