Sulfites in wine

Dennis Jarvis.
Dennis Jarvis. Photo source.

Since a 1988 federal mandate that all U.S. wine labels include the words “Contains Sulfites”, consumers have been confused. The general method of thinking is “Its presence is noted on a label… it has to be bad!” Indeed, since this mandate, sulfites (also spelled sulphites) have been blamed for everything from headaches to skin conditions. Working in the wine industry, I have constantly heard consumers claim to get migraines from sulfites and state that they can “only drink sulfite-free wine”. We are here to set the record straight and present the facts about sulfites.

Sulfite-free wine?

The truth is, there is no such thing as a sulfite-free wine. These compounds are a by-product of the fermentation process and have occurred in all wines since wine has been made. True, some winemakers added more sulfites to wine in order to preserve it and prevent oxidation, (another process that has been commonplace for centuries) but even without adding any, ALL wine contains small amounts of sulfites and always will.

Origins of the fight against sulfites

But if this has been a natural by-product of wine production for thousands of years, why the sudden cause for alarm? Blame it on the salad bar. The salad bar gained popularity in the 1970s and 1980s, and fruits and vegetables were sprayed with high amounts of sulfites to prevent the produce from wilting while they sat exposed and unrefrigerated. Several hundred people reported adverse reactions to the high levels of sulfites, and strict laws were put into place to protect those affected by sulfites (approximately 0.4 to 0.8 percent of the population).

The effects (or lack of effects) of sulfites

In incredibly high amounts, sulfites can be dangerous… but to a very small percent of the population. A UCDavis website explains just how little of the population is affected by sulfites, and how high the levels must be to create any sort of allergic reaction:

Consumption of food preserved with sulfites is generally not a problem except for a few people who are deficient in the natural enzyme to break it down.  For these people, the additional sulfites from food can be a problem.  There are reports of severe and life threatening reactions when sulfites were added at erroneously and enormously high levels (100 times what was supposed to be used!) on salad bar vegetables.  I have found two reviews of the medical effects of sulfites-unfortunately I could find neither on-line as they appear to be too old.  They should be available at medical school libraries.
AF Gunnison and DW Jacobsen, Sulfite hypersensitivity.  A critical review. CRC Critical Review in Toxicology, 17: 185-214 (1987).  CRC Journals
R.K. Bush, S.L. Taylor and W. Busse, A critical evaluation of clinical trials in reactions to sulfites, J. Allergy Clin. Immunol. 78:191-202 (1986).  J. Allergy Clin Immunol

Sulfites in today’s wines

The levels of sulfites in the salad produce which sparked strict government regulations on sulfites were alarmingly high: the produce in those salad bars were sprayed with up to 2,000 parts per million of sulfites. Today’s wines contain 150 ppm or less, and the absolute highest level that a wine can contain (if the winemaker chooses to add any) is 300 ppm. Many wineries today add no sulfites at all (although remember: they are still naturally present in all fermented beverages). Current government regulations state that wines must have less than 1mg/L of sulfites to be able to produce a wine that does not contain the warning label.

It should also be mentioned that ALL wines from all regions of the world contain sulfites at around the same level. Yes, wines from Italy, France, Argentina, Spain, Chile… etc. contain sulfites; the only difference is, those countries do not require a warning label on their wines. However, the U.S. does: so wines imported from other countries will have a special label with “Contains Sulfites” printed on it just to meet the United States regulation. Wines purchased from the country itself and brought back by the consumer will not have the warning label… but they will still have just as much of that dreaded by-product! :)


Used in these small amounts, such as the amounts seen in a glass of wine, sulphites cannot be tasted, and they are most definitely not to blame for headaches (according to allergists). In fact, it is believed that an individual’s inability to metabolize alcohol is what truly causes the wine headache. Check out a UCDavis professor’s rant on sulfites here: it sounds like he is more than a little tired that the public refuses to believe there is not a link between sulfites and headaches! We couldn’t agree more.

If you still can’t let go of the “sulfites cause headaches” theory, try a little experiment: buy some orange colored dried apricots and eat them… if you do not get a headache, chances are, sulfites are not the culprit. A two-ounce serving of dried apricots contains significantly more sulfites than a glass of red wine (112 mg versus 80 mg in an average glass of red wine).

Sulfites are everywhere!

Still not convinced that sulfites aren’t bad for you? Keep in mind that they are also present in beer, cocktail mixes, cookies, corn syrup, crackers, pizza crust, flour tortillas, pickles, salad dressings, olives, vinegar, shrimp, scallops, sugar (brown and white), dried fruit and fruit juice, among many others. Check out the FDA’s list of foods and beverages which may contain sulphites.

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