Sulfites in Wine: Uses and Side Effects

Medically Reviewed on 8/10/2022
Sulfites in Wine
Sulfite sensitivity can affect anywhere from 1 to 10 percent of the population.

Sulfites are a result of fermentation in all wines. Some winemakers may add sulfites to limit the growth of bacteria and yeasts. Producing wine without added sulfites is difficult because the wine frequently degrades.

Sulfites are safe for most individuals when consumed in small portions. Some populations, however, are susceptible to sulfite sensitivity and may respond to sulfites with allergy-like symptoms.

If you experience a consistent bad reaction to wines or other sulfite-containing foods (such as dried fruit), you should consult a doctor and get tests done.

6 uses of sulfites

  1. Sulfites are naturally occurring chemicals found in some foods. They are used in the food business as an additive to lengthen shelf life, preserve food color, and inhibit the growth of microbes.
  2. Sulfites are employed as preservatives in foods and drinks to inhibit browning and discoloration at all stages of processing, preparation, storage, and distribution.
  3. They occur naturally as a by-product of fermentation, such as in the production of wine.
  4. Sulfites have been used in winemaking for millennia to help preserve freshness and avoid oxidation.
  5. The term sulfites are an inclusive term for sulfur dioxide (SO2), a preservative that is widely used in winemaking (and most food industries) for its antioxidant and antibacterial properties.
  6. Sulfites are used to sterilize winemaking barrels and equipment.

4 potential side effects of sulfites

  1. Asthma and sulfite sensitivity
    • If you have asthma, you are considerably more likely to develop an allergic response to sulfur and its compounds. Sulfite sensitivity produces asthma-like symptoms, including wheezing and trouble breathing.
    • Though about 1 percent of Americans have sulfite sensitivity, between 5 and 10 percent of people with asthma may respond to sulfites. Seek emergency assistance if you cannot breathe, start wheezing, or develop hives, and facial swelling after being in contact with sulfites.
  2. Sulfite allergy
    • Sulfites are inorganic salts that do not contain the proteins that cause actual food allergies. Though you get asthma-like symptoms, it could be due to other substances in wine or food.
  3. Sulfites and headaches
    • Sulfites may trigger migraines in predisposed individuals. Those with migraine history or familial predisposition to migraines or tension headaches must stay away from sulfones.
  4. Sulfite-related deaths
    • There have been some reported deaths because of extreme sulfite sensitivity. Anaphylaxis, a severe sensitivity or allergic reaction, causes the circulatory system to collapse and the neck to enlarge and is the cause of death from sulfite sensitivity.
    • If you have severe sulfite sensitivity, request injectable adrenaline from your doctor and always keep it on hand.

Sulfite sensitivity can affect anywhere from 1 to 10 percent of the population. Sulfites have been linked to an increased risk of asthma and other respiratory symptoms, such as:

Symptoms may emerge anywhere between the time the bottle is opened and 30 minutes after the first taste.


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5 ways to avoid sulfite side effects from wine

  1. Better processing for sulfites
    • Find a good label.
    • Better winery hygiene and more cautious viticultural methods, which ensure healthy grapes (free of symptoms of rot), have substantially reduced the requirement for sulfur dioxide during winemaking.
    • Many winemakers now avoid using sulfur dioxide until the fermentation process is complete.
  2. Wine purifiers
    • Many solutions on the market promise to eliminate bitterness by filtering away sulfites.
    • It is a little net-like device that you lay over your wine glass as you pour it. It acts to aerate the wine, allowing it to breathe oxygen and let natural flavors come through.
    • This product has received extremely positive feedback from customers.
    • Many people even conducted taste tests using their favorite bottle of wine. When they compared their pure and unpurified glasses, they saw a significant difference.
  3. Hydration
    • Whether you are sensitive to sulfites, histamines, or both, staying hydrated before indulging in that refreshing glass of wine is essential.
    • The general water intake requirement for females is about 2.7 L (91 ounces) of total water per day from all beverages and meals and for males is 3.7 L (125 ounces daily) of total water.
    • On days when you know you will be drinking alcohol, consider adding a few additional glasses of water to your normal regimen to avoid dehydration.
  4. Understand the labels
    • Current U.S. Food and Drug Administration rules mandate that all wines containing 10 parts per million (ppm) or more of sulfur dioxide must put “contains sulfites” on the label.
    • The quantity of sulfur dioxide required to suppress oxidation, prevent additional fermentation, and stabilize the wine is at an all-time low because of the technology accessible to today's winemakers.
    • The legal maximum sulfite level for wines in the United States is 350 ppm, with most wines averaging about 125 ppm.
    • Without chemical additions, naturally occurring amounts of sulfur dioxide in a glass of wine would be about 10 to 20 ppm.
  5. Understand different types of wine
    • All wines include naturally occurring sulfites. Organic wines are your best chance for the lowest sulfite levels because they are created from organically cultivated grapes without the use of chemicals (including sulfur dioxide) during the winemaking process.
    • Sweet, white, dessert wines have the highest sulfur dioxide level, followed by blush wines and semi-sweet white wines.
    • Dry red wines have the lowest sulfite content, followed by dry white wines.

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Medically Reviewed on 8/10/2022
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