Sulfites are the salts of sulfurous acid, which are naturally occurring in grapes which nature uses to prevent microbial growth. They are found in onions, garlic, and many other plants. Sulfites have been known to cause severe allergic reactions in certain individuals, (please note the word “severe”).
Through my wine studies, I once read that “If sulfites want to bother you, they will, possibly by triggering your untimely death!”
Sulfites are actually the only additives now in use that are known to kill people. Having said this, only 6 people have died in the U.S. since 1982 (6 too many I agree, but how many people have die from an allergic reaction to peanuts?)
Sulfites certainly do not cause headaches. There is however something in wine that does cause a headache, but research on it is very minimal. Some sources think it may be the cogeners which are an impurity normally found in a lower quality wine, or in dark alcohols. It also backs up, to some degree, the theory that cheap wines may give people headaches when expensive wines don’t.
Sulfites are typically added to preserve the life of foods such as shrimp, potatoes, lettuce, raisins and other dried fruit; but are also found in, baked goods, jams, soup mixes, trail mix, tea, beer, apple cider and vegetable juices etc. A number of sources suggest the best way to establish if sulfites are a problem for you, is to eat a food high in natural sulfites, for example, dried apricots. (On average, 2oz of dried apricots have 10 times the sulfites as a glass of wine does.) The problem is (going back to my previous point) that sulfite reactions can be severe, so if you eat dried apricots and you die, you know you are definitely allergic to sulfites!!!
It is possible to find sulfite-free wines; though my recommendation would be that if you are going this route, just stay away from wine altogether! Usually 18 months is the longest a sulfite-free wine will survive before turning to vinegar. This includes the time the wine spent at the winery, at the wine shop, as well as on your shelf at home! Remember, a wine that is sulfite free has nothing to do with a wine being organic.
"Contains Sulfites" is a mandatory statement on labels of wine sold in the United States if the wine contains 10 ppm or more of sulfites, (wine “normally” contains between 125-250 ppm).I hear people say all the time “I went to France last year and had this great bottle of wine that didn’t contain sulfites and I didn’t get headache from it!” it’s because there are no sulfite labeling restrictions in the E.U.
“But this doesn’t explain why I didn’t get a headache in Europe!”
Here are my thoughts…
Consider how you were drinking wine in Europe (or on vacation in general), vs. how you typically drink wine in the US. The culture of European dining dictates that you normally have water on the table, a basket of bread, your wine, and a majority of healthy, natural and often organic foods, with a meal that takes place over a longer period than your average meal at home. The alcohol is absorbed into the body in much smaller doses, with the water controlling dehydration.
This compared to getting home from a long day at work, having a quick something to eat, doing your chores, chugging a bottle (or 2) of wine in under an hour and then going to bed. You’re eating more processed foods, drinking less water and eating quickly! The alcohol doesn’t have as much time to absorb into the blood stream and therefore will hit you harder more quickly, with a wonderful hangover to follow in the morning.
That’s my theory anyway….