Sulfites are an easy target when it comes to wine causing headaches. I mean, they are the reason people get headaches after drinking red wine, right? Laws even require that all wine in the United States have “contains sulfites” on the bottle. This is not the case with other foods and drinks that contain sulfite. Why not? Why only wine? These are interesting questions.
There has been research done lately about this very topic. There is a very small portion of the population (as in one percent) that is allergic to sulfites. The allergic reaction shows not through headaches, though, but through exhibiting asthmatic reactions. In fact, there are a very low number of people that have ever complained about headaches after they drink white wine, which has a higher amount of sulfite than red wine.
So, what is causing headaches in people drinking red wine in moderation?
There are biogenic amines in the wine that are known to have physiological effects. Specifically, these amines are histamine and tyramine. Most individuals have the enzymes in their digestive tract that inactivate the biogenic amines. Those who don’t tend to get headaches.
Many doctors suggest taking an antihistamine before enjoying red wine to fight against the histamine in the wine for those effected. Tyramine is believed to cause migraines. These two amines are in very small amounts within the wine, but the effects are increased because they are in alcohol.
The histamine and tyramine both are by-products of the malolactic fermentation process in winemaking. This is where lactic acid is produced from malic acid converting, thanks to lactic acid bacteria. Only a few types of the bacteria are responsible for producing the amines. We, as consumers, cannot tell which red wines will have them, though.
Unfortunately, there are no sulfite-free wines. The sulfur dioxide, or sulfite, is a natural by-product of the fermentation process, so wine can never be sulfite free. That is, unless research is done to find a way to change or remove the gene that codes to produce sulfite.
Will switching to organic wines help? Well, yes. They have a lot less sulfite but have been shown recently to have a higher number of biogenic amines than the non-organic types.
Is all this information giving you a headache yet?