The Urban Legend of Sulfites

You know all those urban legend stories - like the one about alligators in the NYC sewers and the blind date that ends with you waking up in a bathtub of ice? The wine industry has its own share of urban legend stories with one in particular that I still hear every year. It goes something like this… It involves a couple returning home from a recent trip to Europe. The couple talks about how they drank wine like crazy and never got tired or had a hangover. They reminisce about how they met local winemakers who told them “American wines all have sulfites and ours don’t.” The couple agrees that when they are home in the U.S. they cannot drink wine the same way and enjoy it as much. They insist that the sulfites used in American wine gives them a headache and they inevitably want to know why we have to use them. They usually try to stick to white wine “because of the sulfites in reds.” They never buy another bottle of American wine.

The fact is this story has been told to me many times. My answer to them is always the same: “Perhaps it has something to do with you being relaxed and on vacation!” I go on to say that the reason they feel so good in Europe is simple; “You know, being away from home and the kids, the daily grind of work, sleeping a little later, having lots of “intimate time…” At this point most of them give me dirty looks and shake their heads in disbelief. Some of the wives will snort and elbow their husbands in the ribs. I try to explain there’s nothing in the medical literature proving sulfites have anything to do with headaches and that red wines contain lower levels of sulfites compared to whites. By now of course, I’ve lost them.

Whatever people may want to believe, one thing is for certain. The problem is not sulfites. It’s time for this urban legend to be debunked.

Let’s get a few things straight. All European wine producers use sulfur in wine production – in the vineyard as well as in the cellar, and all wines contain sulfites whether added or not. Wines without any added sulfur can still contain anywhere from 5-40 ppm. Typical levels in finished, bottled wines range from 10-40 ppm.) The same yeasts that convert sugar into alcohol also produce sulfite as a by-product. The human body actually produces about 1 gram per day. Years ago, the subject of sulfur in European wines never even came up; the EU has only been required to list sulfites on the label since 2005. Many imported wines can contain higher levels of sulfites than domestic products. European wineries are allowed to use far more additives than we are in the U.S. They invented additives for wines. For over 400 years, European wine producers studied the effects of sulfur in wine. They learned to understand that good wine could not be made without its use. We learned everything we know about it from them and have continued to improve our knowledge.

Chances are you will ingest more sulfites in your average restaurant dinner than from a glass of your favorite wine. French fries, scalloped potatoes, shellfish, soy flour, maple syrup, guacamole, sushi, olives, pizza, cheese, crackers, and fish—the list goes on—can contain more sulfites (in milligrams per liter) than most wines. The average bag of dried fruit and nuts contain about 10 times the amount of sulfites found in a bottle of wine. Why doesn’t anyone ever complain about trail mix giving them a headache?

Sulfite in domestic wine was not an issue until the mid-1980s. Remember seeing those fast-food restaurant employees spraying stuff over the salad bar? A couple of asthma attacks and a few anti-alcohol legislators later and—voila!—we had a warning label for wine. Some European producers saw this as an opportunity to set themselves apart from their up-and-coming American competitors. Don’t be fooled—all wine is made pretty much the same way no matter where it’s from.

Don’t get me wrong; the folks who are allergic to sulfites have to be very careful. The most dangerous reaction to sulfites involves anaphylactic shock that constricts the breathing passages and severely lowers blood pressure. This type of reaction only occurs in about 0.4 percent of the total population or about 150,000 people. In comparison, about 4 percent of the population (about 11 million people) suffers from severe food allergies. As an example, peanuts are far more dangerous than sulfites can ever be. Since 1990, the FDA has reported 19 sulfite-related deaths—none of them from wine. Most of them were from prescription drugs containing high levels of sulfites (200ppm and higher). Peanut allergies alone result in at least 100 deaths per year.

So what’s my point? As I tell my customers, unless you are one of the few who are truly allergic, you shouldn’t worry about sulfites in wine. If you want to worry, there is something in wine you should be very concerned about. Alcohol is a well-documented toxin to the human body and a known carcinogen at high levels of consumption. It typically makes up 10 percent-16 percent by volume of an average bottle of wine. What do you think has a greater chance of causing you harm—30 parts per million of sulfite or 12 percent alcohol by volume?

According to the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependency, about 105,000 people in the U.S. die annually from alcohol-related causes, which include everything from falls to car accidents to cirrhosis of the liver. Add to this the tens of millions affected by alcohol-related illness and addiction. Sobering stuff, I know, but part of enjoying and appreciating wine must include respecting it and practicing moderation.

As a society, we tend to react negatively to the awful sounding names that science has given some very ordinary and natural things—many of which have been around far longer than human beings. The goal of science is to examine, identify and find the truth. We need to do a better job of stepping back and understanding the bigger picture. And the next time you’re in Europe on vacation, remember to enjoy yourself, drink lots of good wine and set those little old winemakers straight.