What Does “Contains Sulfites” Mean?

Answers to frequently asked questions about sulfites in wine.

What are sulfites?

Sulfite describes forms of sulfur (sulfur dioxide, for example, or sodium sulfite or sulfate) that are present in wine. Sulfur is a nonmetallic element that is very common in nature and is, in fact, essential to life itself.

Sulfur has been used since ancient times for many purposes, including the cleaning of wine receptacles by both Egyptians and Romans. Sulfur has been a food additive since the 17th century and approved for such in the United States as long ago as the 1800s. Sulfites are currently used for their preservative ability, which includes controlling microbial growth, keeping certain foods (for example, freshly peeled potatoes or bottled lemon juice) from browning, and preventing spoilage of certain foods, beverages and pharmaceuticals.

Sulfur’s capability as an antioxidant and anti-microbial has gained it an important role in winemaking. Sulfites either inhibit or kill bacteria or wild yeast, thus encouraging rapid and clean fermentation of wine grapes.

Interestingly, sulfites are also a natural and minor by-product of any fermentation (bread, beer, wine, yogurt, old cider) and thus are produced during the wine fermentation process. As such, no completely “sulfite-free” wine exists.

Why does the government require “contains sulfites” on wine labels?

In 1985, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology conducted a study to examine the link between sulfites and reported health problems. Based on the results of this study, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued regulations prohibiting the use of sulfites on fresh fruits and vegetables that were meant to be eaten raw. In addition, in 1987, they required other foods, such as wine, to indicate the presence of sulfites on the label.

Although the study concluded that sulfites were safe for most people, they did note that they pose a hazard of unpredictable severity to selected patients with asthma and others who are sensitive to these substances. The purpose of the labeling is to alert that small percentage of people to the possible problems that may be associated with the consumption of sulfite-containing food.

Who is allergic to sulfites?

The FDA estimates that one in 100 people is sulfite-sensitive to some degree. But for the 10% of the general population who are asthmatic, up to 5% are at risk of having an adverse reaction to the substance (estimates range from 500,000 to one million persons in the United States).

More important, the most significant sulfite sensitivity reactions occur in asthmatics who are steroid-dependent and are taking such drugs as prednisone or methylprednisolone. Clearly, however, their physicians have cautioned these individuals to avoid sulfite-containing foods or beverages.

What are the symptoms of sulfite reaction?

The symptoms of sulfite-sensitivity reaction vary from mild to life-threatening. The most common symptoms involve a skin rash accompanied by redness, hives, itching, flushing, tingling and swelling. Respiratory symptoms include difficulty breathing, wheezing and partial airway obstruction. Gastrointestinal reactions involve nausea and stomach cramps.

I get headaches, stuffy nose, and rosy cheeks from red wine. Is this a sulfite allergy reaction?

No. What you describe is a syndrome called “red wine headache.” It is unrelated to the sulfite content of red wines but is related to other substances contained within red wine such as histamines, tyramine, phenolic flavanoids or tannins (tannins cause the release of the neurotransmitter serotonin, and high levels of serotonin can cause headaches).

Controlled studies suggest that you can avoid or minimize such headaches by taking either aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen, or a common antihistamine such as Sudafed, prior to drinking wine.

I feel awful in the morning after drinking a lot of wine the night before. Am I allergic to sulfites?

Probably not. What you have is a hangover. Overindulgence of alcohol may result in dehydration and low blood sugar, which in turn will interfere with the body’s chemical balance. This imbalance, along with vasodilation, accounts for the hangover discomfort.

To some degree, hangovers may also represent a short alcohol withdrawal reaction. Obviously, the best way to prevent hangovers is to consume wine with food and follow your mother’s advice: “Everything in moderation.”

I can drink only white wine. Do red wines have more sulfites?

Actually, red wines usually have fewer sulfites. In 1993, the European Union passed regulations permitting higher levels of total sulfur dioxide in dry white wine than in dry red wine and an even higher level in sweet white wines and rosé wines. The making of white wines, especially sweet white wines, uses more sulfur than making red wines.

If you have a problem with red wines as compared to white wines, it may be related to the red wine headache syndrome, described above. Our government requires labeling of foods containing 10 ppm or more of sulfites, while for most other countries acceptable levels are between 335-350 ppm.

Are there any sulfite-free wines?

A sulfite-free wine is very difficult to achieve, since the process of fermentation itself produces small but detectable amounts of sulfite. The range of sulfite produced by fermentation, while very low, is higher in white wines than red wines and decreases slowly over time with the aging and processing of wine.

In general, so-called “organic” wines are made without using sulfites as a preservative. Although some have a residual sulfite level of less than 10 ppm and thus do not require labeling, they run the risk of further in-the-bottle fermentation—which produces a very expensive wine vinegar.

How much sulfite is in wine compared to other foods?

Prior to 1986, sulfites were sprayed on fresh foods (such as the lettuces in salad bars) that were to be eaten raw to preserve their taste and color. Many individuals experienced sulfite sensitive reactions as a result of this practice. Since 1986, the use of sulfites in fresh foods has been prohibited.

Examples of sulfite content in some processed and natural foods:

High Sulfite Levels (> 100 ppm)
Dried fruits, excluding dark raisins and prunes
Bottled, non-frozen lemon or lime juice

Modest Sulfite Levels (50-99 ppm)
Grape juice
Wine vinegar
Fruit toppings
Maraschino cherries

Low Sulfite Levels (10-49 ppm)
Shrimp (fresh)
Fresh mushrooms
Most table wines

By | 2021-05-05T21:59:51+00:00 April 28th, 2021|

About the Author:

Marczyk Fine Wines has Bill St John and other wine lovers to thank for our blog. Wine and food facts and falsehoods, delicious recipes, Denver liquor history, and "the best wines you never heard of" explained, all in one nifty place. This is the Denver wine store you're looking for. Bill is a Denver native and for 40 years, a teacher and writer on food and food & wine, including The Denver Post; Rocky Mountain News; Chicago Tribune; Wine & Spirits magazine; KCNC-TV Channel 4; and others. He also writes for Marczyk Fine Foods too.