What’s the Deal with Sulfites?
So what’s the deal with sulfites?
Well, scientifically, a sulfite is the natural chemical compound that’s used to stop fermentation at a specific time, and it’s added to wine to preserve it and prevent spoilage. The term sulfite technically refers to sulfur dioxide (SO2) and is a preservative found in plenty of food.
There is a common misconception that sulfites are bad for you or can be harmful but that’s only the case for the less than 1% of the population who has a sulfite allergy, and the 5-10% of asthma sufferers who also have sulfite sensitivity. In fact, it’s because of this fact that the United States mandates that producers label their wines as containing sulfites, and we are one of the only countries in the world to do so.
Now, there are two kinds of sulfites- added and natural. The natural ones are the sulfites that occur naturally in the fermentation process and cannot be avoided. It is literally impossible to have a sulfite-free wine, but you can have a wine without added sulfites. These are the ones that winemakers add to their wines to avoid any bacteria or weird oxidation, which is a good thing.
There are sulfites in so many things that you eat- like dried fruit (which can have up to ten times the amount found in wine), most pickled things, and even bottled lime juice. These are products that have their own fermentation process, which means the sulfites are natural, or they have a high risk of bacteria, so they’re added for your protection and safety.
Wineries have been using sulfur in their wines for a very long time. In ancient Roman times, winemakers would burn candles made of sulfur in empty wine containers (called Amphoras) to keep the wines from turning to vinegar.
Fun fact: Sulfur actually helps bring out the color in wine, especially in reds to make them “redder.”
It’s actually a myth that red wine has tons of sulfites. Typically, red wines have about 160 parts per million (ppm), while dry whites have around 210ppm and sweet wines have close to 400ppm. So if you are blaming your “wine headaches” on something, look to the histamines or tannins in red wine instead of the innocent sulfites.