Many wine drinkers suffer from what are called “red wine headaches.” No, we aren’t talking about a headache the morning after a night of overconsumption but rather a headache that must be endured shortly after drinking a modest amount of red wine. Sulfites commonly take the blame for this, but sulfites don’t actually cause headaches.
What are sulfites?
The University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences defines sulfites as inorganic salts that have antioxidant and preservative properties. Sulfites keep food and drink products fresh and prevent them from turning an unsightly brown color. They occur in wine as a byproduct of fermentation; therefore, all wine contains some amount of sulfites, but wineries will often add more to help preserve their wine for a longer shelf life.
According to the FDA, sulfite sensitivities are rare and only present in one percent of the population. Those with asthma tend to be more at risk for developing complications when eating foods that contain sulfites. Symptoms of sulfite sensitivity include itchy skin, swelling of the face, trouble breathing, cramps and vomiting…not headaches.
Myth: All foods and drinks containing sulfites must be labeled.
Sulfites probably received their bad reputation from the “Contains Sulfites” warning label the government requires to be placed on every bottle of wine sold in the United States. Interestingly enough, wine is one of the few products required to have the label. Sulfites are also used in prepared fruits and vegetables, condiments, baked goods, pharmaceutical drugs, canned meats, fruit juice, tea, soda, French fries and much more. It is very likely that you unknowingly consume sulfites every day.
Myth: Wine is unusually high in sulfites.
The sulfite content of wine can vary, but certain other foods trump wine by a wide margin. Packaged meats, canned soups and pre-cut potatoes generally have more sulfites than wine. Dried fruits have the largest concentrations and can have up to 10 times the amount of sulfites as red wine. So, if you can eat apricots or even a bag of trail mix with no allergic reaction, your body is not sensitive to sulfites.
Myth: Organic wines don’t have sulfites.
Some consumers incorrectly assume that organic wines will be free of sulfites. Some wineries have tried to cash in on this misconception by labeling their wines with the phrase “no added sulfites.” As explained, all wines have some amount of sulfites due to the fermentation process. Some organic wineries won’t add additional sulfites, but they still are present naturally.
Myth: Red wine has more sulfites than white wine.
White and sweet wines generally have higher sulfite contents than red wines. The European Union has set the maximum level of sulfites each type of wine can contain: 160 ppm (parts per million) for red, 210 ppm for white and 400 ppm for sweet wines. If you are seeking out a low-sulfite wine, you would be best to stick with red.
What is the real cause of headaches?
So, what is the cause of the headaches? Research is very limited and often contested, but histamine and tyramine could both be culprits. Both of these chemical substances are found in wine and other foods and have been known to cause headaches in large amounts. Interestingly enough, red wines tend to contain more of these substances than white wines.