Let me start by saying this: SULFITES DO NOT CAUSE HEADACHES OR HANGOVERS! I can already hear some of you saying "but they do with me because I'm allergic." Well, you are not. That's right, you're not allergic to sulfites. (In case you're wondering, "sulfites" is a term referring to various sulfur compounds that are commonly added to beverages AND FOOD as a preservative. The common one with wine is sulfur dioxide, aka SO2.) I think I'm going to offer a pretty solid explanation for that, but first let me tell you how it relates to the title of this post.
One thing that really bothers me is when someone decides to lie to their own customers in order to sell a product. I get particularly upset about it when it happens with wine, which is a product that already has more than enough confusion and misinformation surrounding it. Our Daily Red and Orleans Hill are large wine brands with the some owners that market themselves as having no added or detectable sulfites. When I was on their website recently, I watched a video that makes some bold assertions, including the idea that "sulfite ... potentiates the hangover... it's just heinous." These statements are lies. I'm not talking about uncertainty or exaggeration. I'm talking about flat-out lying. Please bear with me while I continue my whirlwind approach to explaining my points.
Selling wine, it seems like about 5% of the people I talk to have self-diagnosed sulfite intolerance. This might seem strange given that estimates from various sources cited by a paper published by the University of Florida(http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/fy731) range from 1% to about 0.3%. I have been told by a Ph.D. chemist whose specialty is wine that the 0.3% number is the one to believe. This paper also mentions that "[a]dverse reactions to sulfites in nonasthmatics are extremely rare." In fact, there is zero reliable data supporting the idea that anyone who does not have asthma suffers from sulfite sensitivity or allergy.? To say these compounds are "heinous" is really only true if qualified by "to the tiny portion of asthmatics who suffer from increased sensitivity." That second part is not stated anywhere in that video. What's more interesting than the extreme unlikelihood that you, the reader, falls into this very small group is the list of adverse reactions. "The manifestations of sulfite sensitivity include a large array of dermatological, pulmonary, gastrointestinal, and cardiovascular symptoms." I don't see where headaches and hangovers would fit into those categories. Let's give the Our Daily Red people the benefit of the doubt and read on to the list of specific symptoms most commonly reported: "bronchospasm [asthmatic inflammation], angiodema [sic; swelling], urticaria [skin rash], nausea, abdominal cramping, and diarrhea". Hmmm, no headaches or hangovers?? If you search the web for documented evidence of that connection, you'll find a lot of unreliable, uninformed sources telling you it exists, and an unfortunately smaller number of informed sources with documentation and citation showing that such connections have never been shown in any sort of scientific study.? It hasn't been from a lack of study, either.
How about another view on the matter? UC Davis is the foremost institution for wine studies in the US. Their website (http://waterhouse.ucdavis.edu/whats-in-wine/sulfites-in-wine) has this to say: "The medical literature has virtually no reports on sulfites inducing headache.There are many studies of sulfites and asthmatic responses, and a few of these address sulfites in wine." So, this has been studied, in multiple instances, and the documented symptoms appear in only this tiny portion of the population, entirely asthmatic, and never include headaches or hangovers.
I know some people do suffer from wine-related headaches. I feel sorry for them. There are several theories as to the cause (possibly histamine), but right now the specific cause is not known. What is fairly certain is that the problem isn't the sulfur dioxide. To most of us, in the concentrations found in wine, this is a fairly harmless compound.? It is also added to quite a few food and beverage products that are not wine related. If you ever eat any sort of dried fruit (raisins, apricots, etc), you are consuming more SO2 per serving that you get from wine. Also, fermented products such as sauerkraut, as well as bread, juices, and various other things often contain sulfites. I never hear anyone complaining of headaches and hangovers from any of these products. The hangover issue is also tricky, but I do find with most people I talk to who get it, they're having a problem with cheap wine. If I drink 2-3 Natural Ice beers or shots of cheap vodka, I will feel like crap. So, it shouldn't surprise people that a few glasses of cheap wine does the same thing. Of course, dehydration also causes headaches and hangovers.
So, thanks for reading. I hope you'll be a little more comfortable from now on consuming wine (responsibly, of course). I'm very comfortable with it. Now if we can get people who sell wine to stop lying to the public, we'll really be in good shape. I doubt these people will stop lying any time soon- April 2013