‘Contains Sulfites’ on Every Bottle: Reality vs. Perception

GrapevineBy Nick Antonaccio

The consumer movement toward being one with nature has picked up steam and is moving more and more into mainstream diets. From global environmental issues to locavores’ appetites for foods and products that are natural, organic or sustainable, consumers are seeking ways to preserve the planet for themselves and future generations.

It seems that with the introduction of new “planet-friendly” products, nefarious marketers or dangerous food products invariably follow; so, too, government efforts to “protect” consumers.

I was reminded of one of these organic products, and the concomitant regulations, in a recent discussion with a reader. I’ve previously written columns on the use and misuse of various natural or organic terms that create more confusion than clarification. But this particular conversation struck a chord with me on the dilemma consumers face when encountering ill-defined wine terms.

This reader enjoys wine, but reduced her intake when she began having headaches after consuming a glass of wine. She had deduced that the headaches were brought on by an allergy to sulfites in wine.

“They must be bad, because every wine label has a government warning, ‘Contains Sulfites,’” she lamented.

Thus began a long conversation. To wit:

“Contains Sulfites” has been a government-mandated message since the 1980s, evolving from consumer complaints of headaches when drinking wine (roughly 1 percent of the population claims a sulfite allergy). It is not a warning, but rather information. (Unlike the other mandated message on bottles regarding the risks of drinking during pregnancy; that is a warning.) The FDA has not banned the use of sulfites or provided any evidence that sulfites are detrimental to our general health.

The confusion is further compounded by consumers seeking organic wines, who interpret the sulfites label message as an adulteration of an otherwise naturally crafted product. In fact, sulfites are generally recognized as harmless compounds when used as food preservatives.

Sulfites are naturally present in the wine-making process; they exist in vineyard soil and rocks and as a byproduct of fermentation. Additional sulfites are introduced into most wines as a preservative. There are the good, the bad and the ugly issues in the use or abstention of sulfites.

The Good: Sulfites provide clear benefits. They act as a preservative against oxidation, inhibit the growth of bad micro bacteria and yeasts and preserve natural flavors.

The Bad: Wine is a perishable product. Without sulfites present, it will quickly oxidize. An unopened bottle of white wine without sulfites may become undrinkable in a few months. (Red wines have natural preservatives in their skins and, therefore, have a much longer shelf life.)

The Ugly: Oxidation will cause wine to turn brown (similar to a cut apple exposed to air) and change, even suppress, its aromas and flavors, thus stripping it of its unique personality. For those who are allergic or asthmatic, just a few sips of wine can cause concurrent headaches, nasal congestion and facial flushing.

At this point, I advised my sulfite-fearing reader her reaction may not be sulfite-related. There are many other compounds in wine that may cause similar effects (tannins, histamines, ethanol), as well as unsanitary or sloppy techniques employed in wineries. I offered a test: eat dried fruits, like apricots. They contain exponentially higher levels of sulfites as wine (but not its other compounds). If you don’t develop a headache, chances are you are not allergic to sulfites. I advised that she discuss this with her physician.

One alternative possibility to my reader’s reaction may be genetic. The lack of an enzyme in one’s digestive tract prevents the breakdown of harmful compounds in all alcoholic beverages. This is widely attributed to facial flushing when consuming alcohol.

Government-mandated labels are not always dire warnings. Sulfites are generally harmless for the masses. However, if you believe you are allergic to them, please seek proper medical advice. Perhaps one day we can welcome you back into the fold.

Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and program director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at nantonaccio@theexaminernews.com or on Twitter @sharingwine.

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