Sulfites in Wine – Are Sulfites Bad for You?

RayLen Vineyards takes great pride in the wines we produce. We follow in the footsteps of the great winemakers who came before us, including the use of sulfites in our wines. But we also understand that some customers may have questions about that use.

It’s understandable that you might wonder about what sulfites are, why we use them, and whether they’re safe. If you’ve ever suffered a “red wine headache,” you may also wonder if the sulfites are responsible. Let’s take a few minutes to clarify sulfites and whether you should be worried.

What are sulfites and why are they in wine?

Sulfites are another way to refer to sulfur dioxide. Sulfur dioxide is a preservative, widely used in many food industries and especially in winemaking. It’s antioxidant and antibacterial, which means it kills bacteria that can make a young wine spoil and keeps the wine from browning.

Without sulfites, the majority of wines would only be good for about six months. With them, however, wine can keep indefinitely. Your favorite wine will taste fresh and delicious for years, perhaps even decades.

Many people believe sulfites are unnatural and thus should be avoided. But while many winemakers add extra sulfites to their wine, all wines have a certain amount of sulfites that naturally occur. This means that even if you’re trying to find a sulfite-free wine, you can’t. You can only find wines without added sulfites.

Are sulfites bad for you?

For the majority of the population, sulfites are generally considered to be harmless. People often mistakenly believe they’re allergic to sulfites and this is why they get a “wine headache.” In reality, the FDA estimates that only about 1% of people are truly allergic to sulfites.

If you are one of those 1% of people, you would have additional symptoms such as a rash, digestive problems or possibly even heart problems after sulfite consumption. Additionally, you would notice these issues with other foods containing sulfites like:

  • Potato chips
  • French fries
  • Scallops
  • Shrimp
  • Mushrooms
  • Parmesan cheese
  • Jams & jellies
  • Dried fruit
  • Pickled foods

If you eat any or all of those foods without issue, it’s unlikely that you have a sulfite allergy.

If you’re not one of the 1% with a true sulfite allergy, you may still have a reaction to sulfites if you’re severely asthmatic.

So if sulfites are generally harmless, why do wine bottles have labels warning you that they contain sulfites? Just as we label items that may contain peanut butter to protect those with a peanut allergy, these labels are for the small percentage of people who do have a sulfite allergy.

What do high sulfites in wine mean?

Sulfite levels can vary from wine to wine. The maximum sulfite level allowed in wine in the United States is 350 parts per million (ppm). However, any wine containing more than 10 ppm is required to carry the “Contains sulfites” label.

Despite the myth that sulfites cause headaches after consuming red wine, red wine actually contains the least amount of sulfites. The reason behind this is somewhat simple. Red wines get their color from the contact they have with the grape skins during fermentation. Grape skins contain a variety of antioxidants, including tannins and polyphenols, that help with preventing the wine from spoiling. Therefore, they need fewer sulfites.

White and sweet wines don’t have the benefit of this extended contact with grape skins, so they need more sulfites to prevent spoilage.

Should you avoid sulfites?

There are wines being made that are low-sulfite. These natural wines are a great advancement for those people who have a true sulfite allergy.

For most people, however, there is no real reason to avoid sulfites. Given their presence in many other foods and drinks beyond wine, even if you chose a natural wine, you’d still be exposing yourself to sulfites.

What causes the headaches if it’s not the sulfites?

Now that you know the truth about sulfites, you might be wondering what causes the headaches then? If it’s not sulfites, what else could it be? There are a few different possibilities.

One is the high alcohol content itself.

Another is the tannins that are found in red wine but not in white or other wines.

It’s also possible the wine has a high residual sugar content that is causing headaches.

Histamines in the wine may also trigger headaches.

A final possibility is that there are other additives in the wine that aren’t listed on the label.

We hope this has helped you better understand what sulfites are and how they benefit your wine experience. If you have more questions or would like to taste more of our wines, please check out any of our RayLen Vineyards wine tastings or events. From different tasting and tour options to food and music in the vineyard, we offer the best in both wine and entertainment.