Rob Moshein - The Austin Wine Guy

Whine Headaches? Part Deux

June 02, 2007

A recent poster called me "crazy" because she did not think I was accurate in my earlier rant that sulfites just don't cause headaches. She told me to "go do more research". Well, I did. So, to set the record straight, here is a review of medical literature on the subject.

AF Gunnison and DW Jacobsen, Sulfite hypersensitivity.  A critical review. CRC Critical Review in Toxicology, 17: 185-214 (1987).
R.K. Bush, S.L. Taylor and W. Busse, A critical evaluation of clinical trials in reactions to sulfites, J. Allergy Clin. Immunol. 78:191-202 (1986)
Sulfites or sulfur dioxide is a fruit preservative widely used in dried fruits as well as wine.  It is also produced by the human body at the level of about 1000 mg (milligrams) per day.  Consumption of food preserved with sulfites is generally not a problem except for a few people who are deficient in the natural enzyme to break it down.  For these people, the additional sulfites from food can be a problem. 

The levels in wine average 80 mg/liter, or about 10 mg in a typical glass of wine, with slightly higher amounts in white versus red. A number of studies show reactions by sensitive patients to drinking wine with sulfites, but it appears that their reactions are also caused by other components. For details on this issue see this review: A.T. Bakalinsky, Sulfites, Wine and Health, in Wine in Context: Nutrition, Physiology, Policy, A.L. Waterhouse and R.M. Rantz, Eds. American Society for Enology and Viticulture, Davis, 1996.

The medical literature has virtually no reports on sulfites inducing headache.  There are many studies of sulfites and asthmatic responses, and a few of these address sulfites in wine.  A few studies from Australia shows that even with extremely sensitive people, there is only an asthmatic response in a small number of sensitive subjects (4 out of 24) for a single drink (150 ml) at extremely high sulfite levels-300 mg/liter or 45 mg.  No effects were seen at lower levels, such as 150 mg/liter, or with several increasing doses up to 750 mg/liter! See H Valley and PJ Thompson, Role of sulfite additives in wine induced asthma: single dose and cumulative dose studies, Thorax 56:763-769 (2001)

Ok, that should do it.  I certainly welcome anyone who does have peer reviewed medical study results which show a statistical correlation between sulfites and headaches to let me know about it. Glad to add it here if you do.

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