Sulfites are used as an preservative in just about every wine and heavily processed meat product throughout the world and can cause mild to serious allergic reactions. Sulfites are also used as sanitizing agents and food color preservatives. Sulfites are also suspected to be a carcinogen when heavy consumed but there is still much testing to be done.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates that 1 percent of people the United States have a sensitivity to sulfites and up to 5% of these people are considered to be “sulfite allergic.”
Many people who either know they have a sulfite allergy or just wish to avoid sulfite containing products because of their potential health consequences do not fully know how widely used it really is. Like many food related allergens, avoidance is the best strategy to preventing allergic reactions.
Here is a list of the top 15 products which can contain sulfites in addition to wine and processed meats:
Canned fruits and vegetables
Grapes (fresh) – safe in some countries
Mushrooms (canned or frozen)
Potatoes (dehydrated, frozen french fries, dehydrated, mashed, peeled, pre-cut)
For some people, a glass of red wine is an invitation to a roaring headache. After a few episodes of headache and queasiness, those who suffer them may banish wine from their tables for life. The symptoms are part of a syndrome known as Red Wine Headache, or RWH.
Red Wine Headache
“The red wine headache is a real if poorly understood phenomenon,” says an article in the June issue of the Harvard Health Letter. That is a masterpiece of understatement. There are many theories about what causes the syndrome, but few facts. Dr. Fred Freitag, associate director of the Diamond Headache Clinic in Chicago, said no one really knows what leads a patient to develop this type of headache.
It may be caused by “compounds found in grape skins. They are either naturally occurring or produced through fermentation,” Dr. Freitag said. He would postulate no further. “It’s not as if there are hundreds of thousands of dollars for funding” studies to determine the cause, Dr. Freitag said. There is actually a stigma to studying the subject. “I’ve entertained the idea of looking for grants to study this and I’ve been told, ‘Don’t go there, it’s bad P.R.,’” Dr. Freitag said. Bad publicity comes to those who would study drinking? Carry Nation is with us yet.
A sulfite allergy used to take the blame for RWH. About 20 years ago the Food and Drug Administration determined that about 1 percent of the population is allergic to sulfites and required that wines containing certain levels of the compound be labeled “contains sulfites.” Many people have assumed, incorrectly, that the labeling is designed to warn people who get a red wine headache. [In fact, sulfite sensitivity is a true allergy. Sufferers experience an allergic reaction, but not a headache. RWH is something else.]
Scientists have pointed out, however, that many sweet white wines contain more sulfites than red wines — yet do not cause headaches in those who suffer from RWH Additionally, dried fruits usually contain sulfites but you never hear of dried fruit headaches. Sulfites can cause an allergic reaction [breathing problems], Dr. Freitag said, but they give headaches only to asthmatics.
Other experts think tannins are at the root of the headaches. Tannins are the flavonoids in wine that set one’s mouth to puckering. The Harvard Health Letter notes several well-controlled experiments showing that tannins cause the release of serotonin, a neurotransmitter. High levels of serotonin can cause headaches and that may happen in people who also suffer from migraine headaches. But that does not explain why people who do not get migraines get RWH. Dr. Marion Nestle, chairwoman of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at NYU, added that no one complains about tea, soy, or chocolate headaches — though all contain tannins.
A third school of thought blames histamines. Histamines are 20 – 200% higher in red wine than in white, and those who are allergic to them are deficient in a certain enzyme. Some experts believe that the combination of alcohol and that deficiency can cause the headaches. But a study of 16 people with an intolerance to wine, reported in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (Feb 2001) found no difference in reactions to low- and high-histamine wines.
A fourth suggestion is that prostaglandins — substances that contribute to pain and swelling — may cause RWH. [More on this next month!] Yet for most people who suffer from RWH, the hypotheses are irrelevant. They want to know what to do about the problem. Some Web sites suggest prevention: for histamine sensitivity, pop a non-sedating antihistamine like Claritin or take an aspirin to stop production of prostaglandins.
In 1981 Herbert Kaufman, M.D., reported that the prophylactic ingestion of aspirin prevented the red wine headache syndrome, RWH, (Lancet 1981; 1: 1263). He also noted that once RWH begins, aspirin has little or no effect in altering the headache.
Related Posts: Sulphur Allergy and Beer Allergies
By Marian Burros of Beekmans Wines & Liquors of Glen Rock, NJ. Their web site is: www.beekmanwine.com
Some people suffer from wine allergies with symptoms that include headaches, irregular heartbeat, asthma, facial flushing, sinusitis and other reactions. For them, Monahan makes low-allergy wines (hypo-allergic). This means we avoid unnecessary additives where possible.
Let’s consider the chemicals and compounds found in wine and particularly the ones that affect people. They are, Preservative #220 also called Sulphur Dioxide or Sulphites, Preservative Potassium Sorbate (#202) or Sorbic Acid (#200), Wood tannins from oak, Tannins from skins/pips, Alcohol content and Salicylates, Amines.
Each of the above can have a role in causing allergies. However, it is generally the ‘combined total load’ of these chemicals that determine the severity of a reaction.
Many people are affected by the sulphites that are found in wines. Sulphites are a group of food chemicals numbered from 220 to 226. The most common one used in Australia is Preservative 220 which is Sulphur Dioxide. This additive is very reactive and binds with anything in its path. It’s an excellent chemical for destroying bacteria and ‘mopping up’ free oxygen.However, that same reactive ability is also the cause of allergy problems for some people.
Sulphites are measured in ‘parts per million’ or ppm. In most countries, a 750ml bottle of champagne can have up to 350ppm which is very high, considering the maximum daily intake is only 60ppm according to the World Health Organisation. Table wines can have up to 250ppm of sulphites added, and at that level a sensitive person can expect a nasty reaction after just one glass. Organic wines are half this level, and have a limit of only 125ppm in Australia. Monahan ‘Low Preservative’ wines are even lower, and our whites are below 85ppm, and our reds are below 60ppm.
Some people avoid wines made with oak because it affects them poorly. This is interesting because oak barrels have been used in wine-making for centuries, and wine and oak are synonymous. However, oak is a problem for some people because it contains high levels of strong tannins that are the astringent component of timber designed to repel insects and grazing animals. These are quite complex phytonutrient molecules. Most people do not have a problem with oak, but some people will react adversely. The term tannin relates to their use in tanning animal hides to make leather, due to their astringent properties.
We do not use oak in our white wines because we believe the negatives outweigh the positives. Our red wines contain reduced levels of oak because we use aged French oak barrels. We do not use new barrels because the oak tannins and timber resins are highest in a brand new barrel. There are some naturally occurring allergens found in plants, like Salicylates that help protect them from diseases, and insects. And for a small percentage of people, these salicylates can cause health problems, and furthermore, there no lab tests to determine if a person is susceptible.This is because salicylate reactions only occur when the tolerance level of the person has been exceeded. As a general rule, those who can safely eat fresh fruits like apples, pears, grapes, cherries etc without ill affects, do not have a problem with salicylates.
Amines are another source of allergens. In wine, amines are formed by the breakdown of proteins in grapes during fermentation. These amines are normally broken down in the body with the help of enzymes which render them harmless, but someone with sluggish or blocked enzymes can be affected. The reality is that all foods are made up of hundreds of naturally occurring compounds that can have varying effects on us, depending on how much we eat and how sensitive we are. It is recommended that anyone affected by these types of natural plant compounds should select their wine carefully.
Wine allergies affect people in different ways, but the more common symptoms are facial flushing, irregular heart beat, low blood pressure, headaches and asthma. The poor effects experienced by some wine drinkers is caused by the ‘total load’ of additives and alcohol. At Monahan we go to great lengths to produce low-allergy wines where the ‘total load’ is low.
If you are really allergic to alcohol then you suffer from allergies Type 1, also called Contact Allergies. suggests that it is more often than not, the other ingredients that cause allergic reaction such as yeast and sulfur dioxide instead of alcohol itself.
We do not know how people can suffer from allergies to alcohol products because many of the usual symptoms associated with alcohol consumption also associated with an allergic reaction. Reddening of the skin of the face and neck, itchy eyes and nose, hives, loss of motor functions, vomiting, and eczema are the typical reactions of the contents of wine and beer and also symptoms of allergic reactions to alcohol.
Some people in Asia experience descent unusual flushing reaction after ingestion of alcohol. This is believed to be caused by a genetic disorder. The body can not metabolize alcohol correctly. It has been suggested that anyone who experiences a flushing reaction after drinking alcohol may be at risk for esophageal cancer, disease liver, alcohol and related conditions.
Sulfur dioxide is added to wine since Roman times. It inhibits yeast growth, preventing the wine becomes wine vinegar thus giving a longer life. Sulfur dioxide also helps to give the old wine of its many different flavors. There is limits on the quantity of sulfur dioxide winemakers are permitted to add. Wines with more than 25 parts per million of sulfur dioxide should be included in the wine label.
Allergies to yeast found in wine and beer, although rare, can cause an allergic reaction and usually manifests as hives.
Red wine contains more histamine from white wines. Taking antihistamines before drinking wine can help reduce the allergic effects of histamines. Fruit wines contain low levels of histamine in wine grapes.
The egg white is commonly used in the fining process. The imposition of fines is the process where unwanted organisms are eliminated by the addition of egg whites or bentonite. The strong drop of the suspension and removed, creating and a wine course. None of the egg white or bentonite is supposed to remain in the wine after the fining process is completed clearly bentonite egg not listed on the label as part of the components of wine.
If you are not sure what is giving you problems you could try the test food challenge. Avoid all allergy causing foods and beverages for several weeks. Then the doctor will give you a pill of each suspected agents at a time under close supervision. If symptoms appear within two hours after taking the pill, then you are allergic to it and will have to avoid.
Always consult your physician before using this information.
About the Author:
Dr Vincent Crump, of the Allergy Clinic Auckland, UK