Anytime you come down with a headbanger after a glass or two of wine, it’s easy to blame the much-maligned sulfites in the drink for why you feel beaten down. But this preservative has for the most part been bestowed an undeserved bad rap.
First, a little background. Sulfites are chemical compounds, or more precisely, inorganic salts used to preserve food and beverages, which it does by preventing bacterial growth (antimicrobial) and the browning (oxidation) of foods exposed to oxygen. This is why sulfite-free dried apricots are brown instead of orange. Winemakers use sulfites to preserve the flavor and freshness of wines.
Sulfites aren’t limited to the wine aisle. You’ll find them in different food products including dried fruits, beer, potato chips, soft drinks, packaged guacamole, pickled and canned veggies, and sausages. Sulfite compounds are also found naturally in varying amounts in foods like black tea, peanuts, eggs, fish, tomatoes, and fermented foods.
In the U.S., wines that are certified organic must not contain any sulfites added during the manufacturing process. However, sulfites are produced naturally during the fermentation of wine grapes as a by-product of yeast metabolism. That means all wines contain some sulfites, even those marketed as “sulfite-free.”
By law, any added sulfites have to be listed on a product’s ingredients list. The Food and Drug Administration requires appropriate labeling for products containing more than 10 parts per million (ppm) of added sulfites.
Though sulfites, and preservatives in general, get blamed for a range of health woes, if you don’t have a sensitivity, there is little research suggesting a reason to worry over sulfites in foods or wines causing adverse side effects. However, “wine headache” is a real thing, though it may not be due to sulfites. Other culprits include tannins, histamines, dehydration and the alcohol itself.
People who are sensitive to sulfites are well-advised to steer clear of foods and drinks with added sulfites. (To know for sure if you suspect a sensitivity or allergy, get tested by an allergist.)
The FDA prohibits the use of sulfites to maintain color and crispness of fresh fruits and vegetables, such as in salad bars or fresh produce in supermarkets which many do not have ingredient labels. And if you’re very sensitive, you may also need to avoid foods where they naturally occur in small amounts. For everyone else, you should be able to pour that glass of dinner wine with a clear head.
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