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Sulfites and Headaches – Is there a correlation?

This is a regularly debated topic that deserves some attention. We’d like to refer you to a great blog by Andrew Waterhouse at UC Davis that breaks down all aspects of the “sulfite gives me headaches” conundrum. Below, we have summarized it for you, but briefly, sulfites are unlikely to cause that headache that some people report occurring within a few hours of consuming wine.

As most winemakers know, sulfite or sulfur dioxide is an anti-oxidant preservative used in winemaking that can also help protect your wine from harmful bacteria or other non-desirable things that might make their way into your barrel. Did you know it is also used to preserve dried fruits?

When most people eat foods that have been preserved with sulfites they typically do not have any reaction whatsoever. (There are a select few in the world that do not sufficiently produce the enzyme to break it down). In fact, the human body naturally produces sulfites at a rate of about 1000 mg per day. A typical glass of wine contains only about 10mg/liter of sulfites.

Granted, there is a small percentage of people, about 1%, who are allergic to sulfite, but they typically have reactions like wheezing, coughing, chest tightness, hives, and/or swelling of face and neck.  There are plenty of reports detailing the effects of sulfites on asthmatic responses in sensitive subjects.  In some cases, intense anaphylactic reactions can occur, like shortness of breath.  For these reasons the government requires wine with added sulfites to bear a warning label. Here is a link to a double blind study for asthmatic patients in response to high and low sulfite wines.

Although Waterhouse has been unable to find literature citing the correlation between sulfites and headaches, it’s likely that most people get red wine headaches from other elements found in wine, not sulfites.

A few things to note about sulfites:

  1. All wines contain sulfites. Yeast naturally produces sulfites during fermentation, so it is rare for a wine to have none.
  2. Nearly all winemakers add sulfites, including those in other major winemaking regions such as Italy, France, Spain, Australia, etc… Just because “contains sulfites” isn’t listed on the label doesn’t mean sulfites aren’t there. There are different laws governing what needs to be stated on a wine label in order for it to be consumed by the public.
  3. In the US, organic wines must be made without adding sulfites. And this is rare! This wine is very susceptible to spoilage and can often have unusual aromas. These wines are typically found in natural food stores in the US.
  4. There is no medical research data showing that sulfites cause headaches. Yes, you may get a headache from drinking red wine but the actual cause is still being investigated. There has been speculation that “biogenic amines” may play a role in the wine headache phenomenon: Wine Headaches. Has the Culprit Emerged?
  5. If you think sulfites are the culprit of your headaches while drinking wine, try eating some orange-colored dried apricots. Eating five dried apricots, which contain about the same amount of sulfite in a glass of wine, usually does not cause headaches for people who claim allergies to sulfites. If it does then you might have an issue with sulfites in wines.

For those that have access, an article in the Wall Street Journal from 2015 also discusses this topic.

Still want to try and get rid of the sulfites in your wine? Just Google “sulfite removal wine” and you will see a number of products that are available. We at Vinmetrica have never used any of these products, so we have nothing to say for or against them. We also suggest you check with your doctor before following any suggestions you see on the internet.

Have any questions for us about sulfites? Let us know by commenting here on our blog.

1 thought on “Sulfites and Headaches – Is there a correlation?

  1. I always ask my tasting room customers 3 questions when they complain about getting headaches from wine:
    1. Do you get a headache when drinking commercial red wines?
    2. Do you get a headache from drinking commercial white wines (not including chardonnay)?
    3. Do you get a headache from drinking home-made wines?

    If the answers are “yes, no, no, respectively” then the headaches are due to the hystamine by-product of the Malolactic Fermentation, which is typically performed on big red wines (and chardonnay) by commercial wineries.

    I found this (which I did not know) doing an internet search:
    “Some people have a shortage of an enzyme that breaks down histamine in the small intestine. Alcohol also inhibits the enzyme, so the combination may boost histamine levels in the blood, which can dilate blood vessels and cause a headache.”(
    This would mean it is an underlying health problem and all wines would be a problem.

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