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Are the Sulfites In Wine Bad for Your Health?


News flash: There's no wrong way to #treatyoself to a glass of wine. You can have a super ~refined~ palate and hand-select the best $$$ bottle in the restaurant or you can grab a two-buck-Chuck from Trader Joe's and pop it open in the park to drink with paper cups and friends. (Although, PSA, you should never order the second-cheapest wine on the menu.) Regardless of whether you'd consider yourself a wine connoisseur or not, you've probably seen all the fancy wine "accessories" out there and wondered, "Do I need this?"

All those "sulfite-free" wines and "removes sulfites!" claims on oxygenators might give you the sulfite scaries. But there's good news: For 95 percent of people, sulfites are A-OK.

What are sulfites, anyway?

Sulfites are naturally created during the fermentation process in wine when sulfur dioxide and water (which is 80 percent of wine) mix. So the first very important thing to note is that all wine—even if it's labeled "sulfite-free"—naturally has sulfites (and all these wine health benefits!).

"You'll see 'sulfite-free' wine, but it's a bunch of BS," says Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan, Master of Wine (the highest wine title in the world) and author of Rosé Wine: The Guide to Drinking Pink. "What that really means is no added sulfites."

While ditching additives in your foods and eating as ~naturally~ as possible is usually a great thing, you actually want these little compounds in your wine. They act as an antimicrobial, "so you don't get any nasties in there that would make it taste foul or turn it into vinegar," says Simonetti.

Do you have sulfite sensitivity?

Very, very few people are sensitive to sulfites, says Simonetti. Some estimates range from 0.05 to 1 percent of the population, or up to 5 percent of people who have asthma, according to a report by the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS). Other studies show that 3 to 10 percent of people report sensitivity, according to a study published in Gastroenterology and Hepatology From Bed to Bench.

How to tell if that's you: Eat some dried fruit. The amount of sulfites in wine is usually around 30 ppm (parts per million), while the amount of sulfites in dried fruit can range from 20 to 630 ppm, depending on the type of fruit, according to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. Dried apricots, for example, have 240 ppm sulfite levels. (It's added to fruit to keep it from spoiling or fungus from growing, says Simonetti.) So if you can happily snack on dried apples and mangoes without a problem, your body can handle sulfites just fine.

Symptoms you should watch for include typical asthmatic or allergy-style suffering: hives, headaches, itching, sneezing, coughing, swelling, as well as gastrointestinal distress. Sometimes just smelling or opening up a bottle of wine that's particularly high in sulfites can induce a sneeze or cough, though it may take up to half an hour to experience symptoms after drinking it, according to IFAS. And heads up: Even if you're symptom-free now, you can develop a sensitivity any time in your life (even as late as your forties or fifties).

Do sulfites cause those killer wine headaches?

The biggest reason you're getting a headache from red wine (or any wine, for that matter) is probably the quantity. "Wine dehydrates you really quickly because it's a diuretic," says Simonetti. "And most people aren't drinking enough water in the first place."

But if you get a headache before you're even halfway into your first glass, it's probs not the quantity—but it's definitely not the sulfites. "It's the histamines," says Simonetti. Histamines (a compound released by cells in response to injury and in allergic and inflammatory reactions) are found in the skins of grapes. To make red wine, the fermenting juice sits with the skins, giving it that red color, bitterness (tannins), and, yep, histamines. These are to blame for the achy head you might get from that pinot noir, according to Simonetti. (On a positive note, did you know wine contributes to a healthy gut?)

To see if you're sensitive to histamines, flip your palm up and, using the opposite hand, make a "#" sign on the inside of your forearm. If it turns red in a few seconds, that means your body is particularly sensitive to histamines, says Simonetti. Many asthmatic people will likely fall into this category, she says. If this is you, there's not really any avoiding it. "Just stay away from red wine," says Simonetti.

What about those fancy wine-filtering, sulfite-reducing tools?

Most of these tools are oxygenators that also claim to reduce sulfites. They do indeed reduce the sulfur oxide in wine—by 10 to 30 percent, says Simonetti. (Though you know now that sulfur likely won't do any harm to you.) While the sulfite-reducing claims aren't super important for most people, they actually can be useful for upgrading your wine experience.

Oxygenators (like Velv) literally add oxygen to wine. Think of it as a techie, way more efficient way to "let the wine breathe."

"Because oxygen is highly reactive, when you add it to wine, it creates all these chemical reactions," says Simonetti. It causes bitter compounds (called phenols) to chain together and drop out of the wine, giving it a softer flavor. (You know that sludge in the bottom of your wine bottles? That's those little guys.) Adding oxygen can also break apart certain aromatic compounds, freeing them so that you can smell them. (And since smell is such a huge part of taste, you'll notice it in your sip.) "Some wines go through a 'dumb' phase," says Simonetti, "It'a stage where they're not aromatic. Adding oxygen frees it up and makes it more perfumed."

Because we know you want to ask: Can these tools make an $8 bottle of wine taste like one that cost $18? Yep—and you heard it straight from a pro.


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