Is Low Sulfite Wine Better For You?
Bridget Reed @ 2022-01-13 07:04:41 -0800
If you’ve ever tried to research why wine gives you side effects like headaches, you’ve probably come across one (or several) articles on sulfites.
Sulfites are a huge topic of conversation in wine today, with many wine drinkers swearing that these compounds are to blame for their headaches. Others disagree, citing studies showing that sulfites are safe for the majority of the population.
So which is it? Is low sulfite wine really better for you? We know you need to get to the bottom of this so you can get back to enjoying your wine rather than worrying about what’s in it. However, the answer really depends on you.
For many people, sulfites are completely safe. For a small portion of the population, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Of course, there are also some of us in the middle who can tolerate low sulfite levels but may have uncomfortable symptoms from ingesting high-sulfite products.
Let’s take a look at what sulfites are, what they’re doing in your wine, and whether or not they’re actually affecting you.
What are sulfites?
Sulfites were used by the Romans, who realized that if they burned sulfur candles in their wine vessels, their wine was less likely to spoil or oxidize.
We still use sulfur today as a natural preservative; it grows on the skins of grapes, protecting them from harmful bacteria. For this reason, you’ll never have a glass of wine that is 100% sulfite-free. However, you can definitely have a glass of wine that has zero added sulfites or low sulfites.
Sulfites can be added to wine at a few different stages in the winemaking process. First, they may be added after harvest on their way to the fermentation vat to prevent oxidation and microbial spoilage. This is a good thing, as you don’t want harmful bacteria in your wine, and you want your wine to taste good.
Sulfites are also sometimes added after fermentation at any point that the wine comes into contact with oxygen.
Lastly, sulfites are sometimes added to prevent malolactic fermentation from taking place, a process that softens the acidity of the wine and gives it a creamy, buttery flavor. This is delicious in some wines and overwhelming in others.
At each stage, the winemaker can choose to add sulfites or take other measures that are more costly and time-consuming to prevent spoilage. For this reason, conventional wines tend to have high levels of sulfites, and natural wines have little to none.
How are sulfites regulated in my wine?
In 1986, the FDA banned the use of sulfites in raw vegetables and fruit after several fatal reactions were reported by restaurants. However, low levels of sulfites have been deemed completely safe by the FDA.
Although they are technically safe to consume, it is estimated that 500,000 Americans are sensitive to sulfites. That’s a sliver of the population, but it’s still a lot of people!
By law, any bottle of wine containing more than ten ppm is required to put “contains sulfites” on the label. For perspective, the maximum amount of permitted sulfites in the US is 350 ppm. A federal study in 1987 found that most wines had levels over 100 ppm, with red wines being significantly higher. Conventional wines often have levels reaching 350 ppm.
Certified organic wines that say “organic wine” on the label are not permitted to add sulfites to their wine. However, there’s a big difference between “organic wine” and “made with organic grapes.”
If the label says “made with organic grapes,” the wine can have up to 100 ppm of sulfites. Natural winemakers always strive to bottle their wine with zero added sulfites, although they tend to fall somewhere between 0 and 35 ppm.
If the wine is from the EU and says “organic wine,” then the wine can also have a maximum of 100 ppm. However, the total permitted in the EU is much lower at 210 ppm.
Are sulfites really bad for you?
If you’re part of the majority of the population, sulfites are not bad for you. Less than 1% of the population has a sulfite allergy. However, the allergy can be really serious for those 500,000 people. These allergic reactions can be extremely uncomfortable and sometimes fatal. Sulfite allergies can also cause asthma, and this can make an allergic reaction even more complicated.
If you have a sulfite allergy, you know it. Many food products have higher levels of sulfites than wine. Dried fruits have incredibly high levels of sulfites. A box of raisins has 500 to 2000 ppm, way higher than any conventional wine. Canned fruits and vegetables, deli meat, and most condiments also have large amounts of sulfites in them.
So if you can eat these products with no problem, it’s not the sulfites in wine that are causing you problems. Still, there may be a reason to seek out sulfite-free wine.
I’m definitely having a reaction to sulfites. How can I avoid it in my wine?
Finding a bottle of sulfite-free wine can feel like finding a needle in a haystack. To find them, you need to find natural wines. But the word “natural” isn’t regulated or even used by natural winemakers. Fortunately, there are other indicators that can tell you whether a wine is natural or not.
Natural wine isn’t going to be found in your larger retailers. To find natural wine, head to your local shops. The more niche, the better. Local wine shops value small producers, and small producers make natural and organic wine. They really care about delivering a clean wine and spend the time and money it takes to avoid chemical treatments or additives in their wine.
Look for “contains sulfites” on the label. If that phrase isn’t on the label, then you know that bottle contains less than ten ppm. That’s a really small amount! Still, it may not be completely free of added sulfites.
Look for “organic wine” from the US (not to be confused with “made with organic grapes”). This wine has zero added sulfites, so you’re good to go!
How can I identify a natural wine?
Learn the labeling trends of natural winemakers. There’s a specific aesthetic that natural winemakers use to label their wines that will let you know what their values are. Here are some of those qualities:
-The label is often bright, jewel tones, neon, or watercolors.
-The wine may be hazy or cloudy. This means that the bottle was unfiltered and is likely a natural wine with no SO2 added.
-If the bottle is sealed with a crown cap rather than a cork, the wine is likely a pétillant-natural. This is a lightly sparkling wine made naturally, using ancient winemaking techniques. They taste quite different than most sparkling wines, but they have developed a cult following.
When you see a bottle of wine that looks like it could be natural, pull out your phone and check the producer’s website. Natural winemakers go through all the trouble to deliver a fresh wine, chemical-free. And they’re going to make sure you know it when you arrive at their website.
More than often, you can find all of the information you need here–how much SO2 was added, what was used for fining, aging, and fermenting, for how long, whether the vineyard is sustainable, and other qualities.
There’s another reason low sulfite wine may be better for you.
Low sulfite wine might be better for you for more reasons than just being, well, low in sulfites. Wines made without added sulfites or limited (<35 ppm) are also typically made without other chemical additives. They tend to be natural wines that are cleaner, better for you, and way better for the environment.
Winemakers go through the trouble to stabilize your wine in ways other than sulfites because they want it to taste and be as fresh as it can be when it reaches your lips. And while the hype around sulfites might be a little overstated as far as safety goes, organic and natural wines are made more responsibly and taste better.
So go for it! You may just fall in love with low-sulfite wines.
Need a low sulfite drink to sip on while you research the world of natural wines? Try our Organic Grape Wines, a sampler of natural and organic wines made with <35ppm sulfites.