Sulfites in wine are chemical compounds (sulphur dioxide, or SO2) that occur naturally, to varying degree, in all types of wine.
Ancient cultures in Greece, Rome, and Egypt, used sulfites to sterilize their containers of wine. Because sulfites are anti-microbial, it has the ability of killing off unwanted bacterias and wild yeast during wine making.
Because sulfites act as both a wine's preservative and enhancer, many vintners purposely add sulfites at key moments of the wine making process to quickly halt on-going fermentation, or to help protect the wine against potential oxidation or bacterial exposure which could occur at various stages of the wine making process.
Wine sulfites are highest in sweet, white wines, and lowest in dry, red wines.
Ever since the FDA has required wine labels to disclose "Contains Sulfites" consumers have become increasingly alarmed and worried as to whether sulfites are dangerous to one's health.
The truth of the matter is that there is little reason to worry. Sulfites are naturally occurring elements in all wines, generated in amounts between 6 to 40 parts per million (ppm), they are not chemical additives, and they are present in many other foods as well.
The biggest health risk involving sulfites would be allergic reaction. While it's listed as a food allergen, a true allergic reaction in the form of anaphalaxis is in fact a very rare phenomenon.
So a general fear in sulfites would be as unnecessary as a general fear of shrimp scampi, peanut butter sandwiches, or omelettes. Actually, shellfish, peanuts, and eggs are of the six most common food allergens, whereas a true sulfite allergy is way, way far down, if not negligible, on that list.
People also believe that sulfites in wine cause headaches...which through research has been proven a false assumption. There has been no correlation between sulfites and headaches.
A more common scenario with wine sulfites is a more typical, mild food sensitivity, which can create symptoms in the form of coughing, wheezing, and/or rashes.
All that being said, bear in mind that sulfites are used as a natural preservative in many, many types food products, from dried fruits to frozen shrimp, and that because its a naturally occurring chemical compound, even organic wines cannot avoid containing sulfites. Even our bodies naturally produce sulfites!
My opinion is that if you've reached drinking age and don't know if you have an allergy to sulfites - you probably don't. Those with an allergy to such an all-pervasive ingredient as sulfites, would be made aware of this fact early on in life.
So while of course those with a serious allergy to sulfites must remain diligent on their food and beverage intake, including sulfites in wine. But for the vast majority of us, the health benefits of drinking quality wine are indisputable and we should enjoy them!
Melina (that's me) is the creator & catalyst behind this website, and answers wine questions through research, ongoing conversation with Sergio, and personal experience living and working at Hopewell Valley Vineyards.
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