Drinkers tend to blame sulfites in red wine for a range of health issues, including breathing difficulties, allergy symptoms and headaches, but the jury is still out on whether sulfites are actually the culprit. Histamines, which are produced by yeast and bacteria, and Tyramine, an organic compound in red wine, have also been cited as possible causes. But while white wine generally contains more sulfites, they are more often associated with red wine. In fact, many of the foods we eat have far higher sulfite levels than those that naturally occur in wine. Given all of this, it stands to reason that we have been accusing the wrong component of our wine for these undesirable side effects all along when, in fact, they are likely not the cause.
The use of sulfur dioxide in the winemaking process has long been blamed for causing health problems, but the scientific community is divided on the issue. Sulfur dioxide (SO2)-in the form of potassium metabisulfite-is added to most wines and many other food products for its antimicrobial and antioxidant properties. The term “sulfites” on wine labels refers mainly to sulfur dioxide, but also includes sulfurous acid and other sulfites. Sulfur dioxide is also a natural by-product of fermentation, so it is unlikely that an SO2-free wine could ever be produced. Most yeast strains yield 10-20 milligrams per liter of SO2 during fermentation, although some, such as FX10 and M69, produce significantly more than others. Without sulfur, wine is prone to oxidation and spoilage.
The number of questions asked by consumers has increased exponentially since wine labels began carrying a “contains sulfites” message. Although a small number of drinkers actually suffer negative effects from sulfites, sulfites may be unfairly maligned. Having a warning on the label is a prime example of this. It directs blame for any negative experiences toward sulfites. This prompted a Colorado State University study of consumer perceptions of sulfites and whether drinkers would pay more for a bottle labeled “low in sulfur.”
The American Association of Wine Economists published a study that found consumers would be willing to pay a little extra for wines that contain low levels of sulfites-about 64 cents to be precise. In comparison, the premium placed on organic wine is $1.22-nearly double. Consumers are aware that “organic production protocol prohibits, among other things, the use of added sulfites.” In other words, if drinkers pay the extra for organic wine, low sulfites will be included in the package.
In this case, perception is everything. The Colorado study found that almost two-thirds of the same study sample who suffered headaches believed that the sulfites in the wine were responsible. The study also revealed that those who do get a headache after a glass or two of wine are willing to pay as much as $1.23 extra for a low-sulfite bottle. Those who don’t generally have headaches are willing to pay 33 cents extra. Researchers worked hard to identify those who simply had a hangover, focusing on those who reported headaches after small amounts of wine. More than one-third of the study sample had experienced headaches from very little wine.
Less surprising was the discovery that the sulfite content of wines was not high on the list when it came to purchasing. People may prefer a low-sulfite wine, but it’s not a priority. Researchers say quality and price remain the two most important factors for wine buyers in the United States.
So while it would be nice to have something to blame for the headaches we experience due to wine-drinking, for the general population at least, it’s likely not sulfites. A more reasonable conclusion would present any of the other chemicals present during the process of making non-organic wine as the culprit(s). We’re going to play it safe and say that drinking organic is the best way to avoid most negative after-effects commonly associated with wine. And if you’d still prefer to steer clear of sulfites, well, we’ve got those wines too.