Originally published July 2006:
I hear this all the time in the Tasting Salon — “I can’t drink much wine; it gives me a headache. I think I’m allergic to the sulfites.” I don’t know how this myth got started, but I sure would like to dispel it once and for all. You are not allergic to sulfites.
At least, the chances are 100,000 to 1 that you are not. And if you are in that 99.9999th percentile you KNOW it. You knew it when you woke up in the hospital after nearly dying of suffocation from your first trip to a salad bar or your first bite of dried fruit (potentially loaded with metabisulfite, to prevent browning).
People who are allergic to sulfites go into anaphylactic shock when they are exposed to them — they choke to death. So far as I know there is no research to support the existence of a range of reaction to sulfite allergy. “Allergic to sulfites” equals anaphylaxis; no choking — no allergy.
I will allow the possibility that there could be a lesser physiological reaction, but I have not seen any sort of intermediate in myself or any of the hundreds of people I have worked with in all my years in the winery cellar. And in the cellar we not only ingest sulfites, but frequently breathe in clouds of sulfur dioxide — a much harsher test of sensitivity. Reactions may be choking and burning throat and eyes, but never headache.
You can do your own test at home (but only if you know you are not susceptible to anaphylaxis!). Light a kitchen match in a closed space and breathe in the fumes. If you develop a headache similar to the one you get when you drink wine, post a comment and let us know.
And by the way, everything fermented has a small amount of sulfites in it, because yeast produces sulfite as a metabolic by-product. Some wine yeast produce more than others. But every wine — even “organic” wines labeled with “no sulfites” — have some sulfites in them. So other fermented foods (bread, yogurt, kimchee, etc.) should give you a headache as well.
Update March 2009:
This piece has generated a flood of comments along the lines of: “I once ate this and this and this and this, and one of them contained sulfites, and I got a headache.” Some of these comments include the assertion “I have been told I have sulfite allergy.” I have rejected and will continue to reject publication of this line of commentary.
I am not a physician. If I was, I would not venture to make diagnoses online. I am a trained experimental scientist, and as such will say that coincidence is not the same as causation. The continued assertion that “I ate or drank something that contains sulfites and got a headache therefore I am allergic to sulfites” demsonstrates how deeply and unshakably this “sulfites in wine causes heacaches” meme has penetrated popular culture.
I am waiting for one of the “I have been told I am allergic to sulfites” comments to include “…by my physician who did his/her dissertation on sulfite sensitivities at [insert respected medical institution here].” I have not seen any such coda, and frankly don’t expect to.
John Kelly is the owner and winemaker of Westwood Winery in Sonoma, California.