A small percentage of people experience similar reactions to red wine. Sulfites are often blamed, but scientific research does not necessarily substantiate this.
While a red-wine headache is not pleasant, such headaches are not classified as severe allergic reactions but rather as a syndrome: RWH, red wine headache.
I frequently hear statements regarding sulfites in wine. “I only drink European wines” — “I only drink white wines” — “I only drink organic wines because they contain no sulfites.” Such statements represent a garden of misinformation.
All things grown in the earth, including grapes, contain naturally occurring sulfites. This is nature’s way of preventing premature spoilage.
As a result, all wines contain naturally occurring sulfites. But often these are not enough to prevent spoilage. Sulfites have been added to preserve wines for hundreds of years.
Adverse sulfite reactions came to the forefront in the mid-1980s, with the advent of the restaurant salad bar. Sulfites were used extensively to keep offerings on the bar fresh and appealing. An FDA analysis of severe adverse sulfite reactions found that most occurred when people were dining out and had eaten from the salad bar.
In 1986, the FDA barred spraying fresh foods with sulfites, and also required that food labels carry a warning for sulfite additives.
My current box of golden raisins lists sulfur dioxide as an ingredient, and indicates it is added as a preservative. This holds true for most processed foods and dried fruits sold in America.
Wines sold in America must carry labels indicating that the wine contains sulfites.
Most wine drinkers should rejoice to see this verbiage. Having recently tasted an allegedly 100 percent sulfite-free wine (yes, there is such a thing), I would give up wine entirely if my only alternative was this utterly tasteless blob.
Today, sulfites are used more judiciously by winemakers to preserve and stabilize wine.
White wines are particularly susceptible to spoilage. They often receive heftier doses of sulfites, though the levels are still inconsequential.
Organic wines are not the answer, either. American winemakers cannot call their wines organic if sulfites are added during the winemaking process.
Wines sold in Europe do not require warnings about sulfites. This may explain why some harbor the notion that European wines do not contain sulfites.
Those with existing asthma symptoms should be very cautious when consuming foods with added sulfites. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates some 22 million Americans have asthma. Of that 22 million, 20 percent have severe asthma, and of that 20 percent, about five percent have severe sulfite reactions.
Red wine headaches may not be caused by sulfites. These headaches may be related to something else in the wine, like histamines or tannins.
If prone to red wine headaches, some experts recommend taking a non-sleep inducing antihistamine before drinking red wine. Others suggest taking an aspirin. Others suggest trying different wines from different varietals, because not all red wines consistently cause headaches.
If you still think sulfites are the culprit for you red wine headaches, one expert suggests sucking on a dried processed apricot. If you don’t get a headache, likely it is not sulfites causing your pain.