Sulphite intolerance and wine

Over the last few years I seem to have developed an increasing intolerance to sulphites (and maybe amines at the same time) in food. I first noticed it, though didn’t understand why, when I worked at McKinsey. I used have half a litre or so of fruit juice when I got into the office. Every day I was in the office I got a headache, and I blamed it on being in London … but when I tried removing everything I normally ate or drank, and working back slowly I found it was the fruit juice. Didn’t matter if it was apple or orange – I now find that that is because Tetrapak type cartons are frequently cleaned with sulphites – like wine bottles.

I became acutely aware on a business trip to Canada. I went out with a supplier, and had a lovely dinner (at Le Queue de Cheval – super restaurant if you find yourself in Montreal). It certainly wasn’t excessive in wine – I think I had three glasses of red + a glass of Canadian ice wine which is a sweet white wine. I slept badly and in the morning was in a dreadful state, with a migraine class headache (though it felt like the worst hayfever headache ever, with a pain behind the eyes), and feeling washed out and nauseous. I didn’t manage to leave my room until mid-day (not great on a one-day trip!), still had a very bad headache on the flight home and on until the afternoon of the next day. The experience was bad enough for me to want to check into it. The culprit turned out to be the ice wine – it is about as bad as you can get on added suphites. It’s white, sweet, bottled according to US rules (so, sulphites are mandatory), and made from grapes that have been frozen, so may well need more preservative to handle that.

Since then I found myself getting less and less tolerant, to the point where I need to watch the ingredients of food, and worst of all (for me) almost never drink wine.

The first couple of these are manageable, but I do like wine, so we have being doing experiments from time to time. There are actually quite a few things people can react to in wine, but I find I am fine with beer (which has far less sulphites); worse with white wine, which has more sulphites but less amines; not ok with other food that contains pretty much just a base ingredient and a sulphite preservative (like jif lemon or pre-chopped ginger). So, I’m pretty confident it’s sulphites.

I do still have some uncertainty though. The symptoms are similar to hayfever, and some people have reactions to the amines in wine. I suspect that I may also have a degree of amine reaction since I have a real problem with wine when tree pollen (that I get hayfever from) is about. So, it’s possible that mild Tyramine sensitivity (the amine that apparently is most likely to cause headaches) issues are combining with mild-moderate sulphate sensitivity to end with me having a headache that it actually a function of both. I also wonder why I don’t seem to react to some foods that apparently do contain sulphites (like fast-food french fries and died coke). Frankly I’m more interested in whether I can control it, though understanding it is clearly a crucial part.

Before I get to that, here’s a few interesting articles I found on the Internet. This one is by far the most interesting, with a proper scientific method (i.e. he mixed up sulphite solutions to test his reaction). Most useful resource is this page which lists the content of SO2/SO3 in parts per million. Lists lemon juice, dried fruit and wine/grape juice as the highest in ppm, which marries with my experience of them, and reinforces my view that Sulphites are the primary issue for me. This one covers different preservatives used, noting that some Australian producers use Sulpher dioxide gas rather than a sulphite. I haven’t noticed Australian wine as being less of an issue (though I confess I haven’t explicitly clocked the country of origin, excepting US wine). This one is interesting for the comments. Clearly, vs. some people I have an almost trivial level of intolerance – they need to go to accident and emergency!  And, there are some who say it doesn’t exist at all – e.g. see here

So, what useful stuff have I found?

Drink Sulphite free wine. Organic doesn’t always do it, though it helps since they have lower sulphites. It’s pretty rare, but can be found. Sadly, I haven’t found a decent supply (i.e. nice and low sulphite) in the UK, and almost never in restaurants, but we had some success in a restaurant called Belthazar in Cape Town (see blog entry here).

EDIT – I’ve now found a UK wine merchant that specialises in low sulphate wine.  See post here and their site here.

Decant it into a captains decanter (one of the very wide ones) for an hour before drinking, and slosh the wine about a fair bit. Apparently contact with the air helps change the sulphites to sulphates, though I don’t think there can really be enough time for that. Anyway, for whatever reason it seems to help.

Don’t have too much. I have an intolerance, not an allergy. The difference as I understand it being that an intolerance is broadly linear, whereas an allergic reaction has some kind of trigger level. I also need to watch out how long it takes to go – seems to be over 2/3 days, so a first day can cause no issue, but puts the base level up, so a similar exposure the second day can then cause a problem. For me, 1/2-3/4 of a bottle of organic wine that has been decanted for an hour seems fine as long as I haven’t had anything in the previous 24 hours.

Read ingredients carefully. There are sulphites in loads of food, with sauces and preserved ingredients often seeming to be laced with it. I will also avoid platter-type lunches since by the time I have had some of everything, the chance of hitting an issue is just too high. Instead I go for the plainest things. Or, if I really can’t find anything I know to be fine but need something to eat, just lots of a few things. Once in a while that will backfire, but 9 times in 10 its fine, so works OK unless crashing the next day would be a disaster.

And, why write this post now? Because, despite the effort, it doesn’t always work. I had wine last night, and this morning I have a headache. Not nearly as bad as it can be, but very frustrating. Probably there was something in the food which added to the wine + wine I had had the previous night tipped me into a headache.

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24 Responses to Sulphite intolerance and wine

  1. Karen Baird says:

    Hi Greg,
    Great blog on sulphites and I enjoyed reading what the links said too. Can I add the link to this page to our website? If you read my husband’s account under Personal Stories, you’ll see why we built the site. Thanks.

  2. Chris G says:

    After 6 -8 yrs of not drinking alchohol, and avoiding foods with wine in, I discovered last month, a white Australian wine from Happs Vineyard that is Preservative Free. (I was in Aus). With much trepidation, I finally tried a teaspoon and I was perfect! I then had a glass full and again I was perfectly well. Normally this would have renendered me incapable for 24hrs with approx 16 of those with me vomitting & suffering a blinding migraine. I am looking for an importer.

  3. Dee Hamilton says:

    It took me ages to find out I was intolerant to sulphites, they’re in so many things. Just started making my own wine using Miltons or bicarb of soda as a sterilizing agent. Also make most food from scratch as some suppliers don’t list it in their food. I find too that it builds up over a few days. Blinding headache, wiped out, nausea and vomiting if I have a lot, its awful.

  4. Simone says:

    Thanks for your useful information on sulphites. It seems to me that you might benefit from a book on migraines called, “Heal Your Headache” by David Buchholz. He recommends that migraine sufferers stay away from alcohol, and from suplhites, but that white wine or vodka are the ones we are most likely to get away with. I read through over a 100 reviews of this book through “amazon.com” and have been following the diet since October 2007. I am someone who was incapacitated from migraines monthly, to someone who hardly ever has a headache. The diet includes avoiding a lot of food that contains tyramine and other chemicals, as well as caffeine. Although a challenge at first to follow, it has been a life saver for me. This might be of some interest to you in your search to get rid of your headaches.

  5. Andrew Rooney says:

    Greg,

    Thanks for hosting this discussion and sharing you research.

    This Australian page has links to producers low sulphite / no added sulphite wines:
    http://www.allergycapital.com.au/Pages/sulphites.html and it has some other info about other sources of Sulphites that you may already know.

    I have been experimenting with wines from the Chapoutier vineyard in Languedoc. They use bio-dynamic methods apperently and the manager at my local Oddbins says they “try not to put in too much stuff…”. Partial success so far, but levels seem to build up again after a few days.

    The problem, as you say, seems to be complex and total consumption from diverse sources needs to be managed. Tricky…

  6. john lang says:

    If you’re looking for low sulphite wine go to http://www.goodwineonline.co.uk
    My partner, Jane, developed a sulphite intolerance 9 years ago, which nearly killed her. Since then we’ve done our own research as she was told by her doctor that she could never drink wine again.

    We now run our own website retailing wines, low in sulphites and additives, all of which are fine for Jane to drink. She still reacts instantly to any wine with high sulphite levels and can tell in one sip if it’s going to affect her. Different people have differing levels of intolerance, and symptoms, but we’ve already helped a large number of people who are delighted to be back to drinking wine again.

  7. Greg says:

    Hi John – looks a good site, and EXACTLY what I’ve been after in terms of info, I’m ordering now to try!

  8. Pingback: Good UK source for low sulphate wine « Greg Pyes blog

  9. Deanne says:

    I have always had a problem with some wine. My intollerance extends to me feeling ill after one small glass or half a large glass. I can even develop a headache as Im drinking it. Friends and family think Im making it up. But I can even have one sip of wine and know that it is going to effect me.

    But then on other occassions, I can drink some wine all evening and feel fine. Having read your blog I am now going to research my condition further as it would appear that only certain bottles of wine are effecting me. What I need to establish is if the bottles that are effecting me are high in sulphites.

    Thanks again for the blog.

  10. richard garnier says:

    hey Greg – you seem to be confusng yourself and perhaps others as a result – you talk on your sulphite intollerance and wine page about sulphITES but on the good wine supplier page about sulphATES, having said on the intolerance page that sloshing around wine in a broad-based ships’ decanter turns the sulphites to sulphates. Some corrections needed in your text?
    Richard

  11. A says:

    Hey, very very interesting article; I have learned a lot. I have similar problems – have thought about fructose intolerance? Wine, apples and oranges cause reactions in fructose intolerance, I am just thinking about it as you do not react to french fries and diet coke …
    But I will check for sulphites also, thank you for the information!

  12. Paul B says:

    I have developed an intolerance to something at the age of 55. Prior to this I could eat/drink anything without effect. All of a sudden I wake up with a swollen lip/jaw/tongue/throat (take your pick) and , in a minor sympton, hives on my ass or splotches on my skin. The symptons start to appear at 3-4 am (my wife says she knows when I am going to wake up swollen because I start to snore around 3-4am). These sympton can appear once every 3 weeks or sometimes twice in four days. Usually it goes away by 1pm that afternoon. I bought an epi-pen just in case but I can’t seem to nail this down. I suspect soy or sulphites. It is driving me nuts because I am a non-smoker who is very active and I watch what I eat. I am the same size I was when I was 17 5’11” 174 lbs.

  13. Rob A says:

    Hi, i would be very careful using an epi-pen as alot of these actually contain sulphites!

  14. Richard says:

    Thanks for the info and the reassurance that I can continue to drink wine. Since buying a property in Brittany and starting to drink the good value wines in boxes, I have gradually built up an intolerance of sulphites culminating in a two night stay in hospital having my asthma sorted out. It was scary. Now I know I can drink your wines

  15. Pingback: Excellent : Sulphite level labelling on wine | Greg Pyes blog

  16. Arabella Carter says:

    Reading this blog and the replies have been very interesting. I gave up drinking wine years ago as only one or two glasses made me feel ill – especially red wine and I now have a total aversion to it. I have never had any of the breathing symptoms like asthmatics can but I often find my nose is congested for a day as if I have a cold and I sneeze a lot. I have often had a headache and chills, accompanied by vomiting and diarrhoea and once many years ago I woke in the night with heart palpitations. The D and V would last at least 24 hours and then I would feel rough for a few days afterwards. I can drink spirits but in moderation and have to be careful sometimes, depending on what I am drinking. I avoid dried apricots which are preserved in sulphur dioxide. I used to snack on them but they would upset my stomach and I changed to unsulphured apricots. I have only recently discovered that some people have an insensitivity to sulphites and am now becoming convinced that this must apply to me. I am going to start checking food packaging labels more carefully.

  17. john lang says:

    Hi Arabella – it’s John from http://www.goodwineonline.co.uk
    Unpleasant as these symptoms are, it’s great news that you have identified the problem. Jane, my partner, has had a severe sulphite intolerance for 12 years now but she is able to lead a perfectly normal life. We now have at least a dozen sulphite free wines on our site with more on their way from California and Chile as we speak, as well as many very low sulphite wines which are fine for Jane to drink with no ill effects whatsoever. In fact we have helped hundreds of sulphite intolerant people get back to enjoying wine again – check out our website for plenty of info on the subject.
    As for spirits, stick to quality brands and you should be ok. “Own label” spirits need to be vehemently avoided. As for food packaging, the E-numbers E220 to E229 are all sulphites and could be very dangerous for you. You will be fine to drink German beers brewed to the purity laws as they don’t contain added sulphites. If you like real ale both my sister in law and my brother have their own micro breweries, and neither of them add sulphites so their beers are absolutely fine for Jane. Other micro breweries are likely to be similar, but there’s no guarantees so be careful here too. However avoid all mass produced beers from the major brewers. In fact a very good policy is to avoid EVERYTHING which is mass produced as artificial preservatives are a cost effective solution for large scale producers. Certainly don’t drink any UK brewed lagers. When out we stick to German Pils, bottled Peroni or bottled Becks. Wine can be a real problem in restaurants and should be strictly avoided in pubs – we run a wholesale business as well as the website, and the UK pub trade is dominated by mass produced highly chemicalled wines – you’re very unlikely to find even a moderately low sulphite wine in any pub!
    Please feel free to email me via our website if you want to discuss anything in more detail.

  18. dorothy says:

    heya – i’m from cape town, south africa, and we’re very lucky to have easy access to organic sulphite-free, fair trade wine produced by stellar winery (which is quite lovely) … it’s like hitting the jackpot
    they also supply (though repackaged) woolworths (which is like marks and sparks here) so it’s also always available – happy for me!

  19. dee m says:

    Being a long time red wine drinker, I all of a sudden developed swollen and dry eyelids! After months of changing pillows, shampoos, eliminating make-up and countless others, the only other thing I was doing is drinking red wine every night. So I stopped that, and it went away. Has anyone else had a similar problem?

  20. Tony T says:

    Hi Dee, Sounds Hayfeverish, which Greg mentioned. I wonder how many Hayfever sufferers also have Sulphite intolerance?
    Heavy exposure to various things has started up intolerance for me. Hayfever started when I was young, after a particularly dry and dusty walk. Chocolate started giving me migraines after many years with no problem. (Should I admit that I ate 7 bars of chocolate one evening?)
    My Sulphite intolerance could have been with me for a long time, perhaps since student days drinking a chemical mixture called “Brew Eleven”, a beer “for the men of the midlands”.
    It may just take one heavily Sulphited drink to trigger the intolerance, but who would want to volunteer for the medical study?
    The wine from Cornish Moorlands Brewery that I bought from Kingsley Village Cornish Superstore in Fraddon does not have added Sulphites, and my head is clear the day after a half-bottle of the excellent Pinot Noir. The shop assistant said they use Sulphur Dioxide to clean the bottles, and then leave them to drain.
    After reading this blog I have so far have avoided the two day headaches by checking the labels before buying bottled ale. In pubs it feels like I am playing russian roulette, but Peroni is a good fall-back if they have it. I had a 2-litre bottle of Rebellion Ale bought direct from the Marlow Brewery, Sulphite-free, and had to be drunk within a week. I left it a bit late and had it all one evening, (in the interests of science;), and had no hangover the following day.

  21. LynnSP says:

    Reading all comments with great interest, over the last year or two have noticed that I was losing my smell and taste after drinking wine. One night last year had one glassof champagne, and two glasses of white wine, and could not smell or taste anything for 3 weeks after wards. Same thing happened again when I was fed up with it one night and drank 3 glasses again. Also tried 2 x vodka and 2x gin measures (on seperate occasions) and taste/smell disappeared but came back in a day or two. Am now realising the mixers could be as bad as the alcohol part of the drink! Scary not having smell and frustrating not having taste so am testing through trial and error if it is sulphites and just purchased 3 bottles of wine from goodwine co. to try. Also learning about sulphites content in food and other drink, am yet to try sulphite free spirits and I did find some to order online. Have been allergy tested for all the regular stuff which was clear, but no testing available for sulphites as apparently you can only be allergic to “protein”! Have also seen private ENT specialist who checked my nose for polyps etc. and found that it was blocked with mucus. I have nose drops to clear but don;t want to become dependant as they can be dangerous if used for long periods of time as they are quite strong. I’ve never heard of this before, and was told by the allergy professor that there is very little research data available with regards sulphite intolerance. He is now referring me to dietician and neurologist! I don;t drink or like beer but am now tempted to try Peroni as someone above has mentioned it. Thanks.

  22. Clair says:

    As I write this I am testing a low sulphite rose I found in my local waitrose. I’ve known for a long time I had some kind of issue with wine but until reading a recent story in The Daily Mail wasn’t sure what it was. I have hayfever, astma and allergic rhinitus and upon drinking one glass of wine I suffer severe sneezing fits synus type headache and generally feeling grotty. This is however only related to wine – I don’t appear to have issues with other high sulphite foodstuffs but may take more care in future. I’m half way through my glass and so far not so much as a sniff or an itchy nose.

  23. carlanan says:

    Great blog Greg. It’s taken me years to find one bottle of red I can drink without getting sick. I just stick to that, drink two glasses and I’m okay. Better something than nothing.

  24. Lynne prescott says:

    I have also had a bad history with wine. I was never able to drink very much, but enjoyed an occasional glass of wine without ill-effects. Over the past 10 years though, I have had reactions to lower and lower quantities of wine, to the extent that now even a mouthful of champagne or prosecco gives me an instant headache with nausea that lasts for at least 24 hours and is impervious to any painkiller. I have found that the only exceptions for me are low alcohol local white wines in places such as Portugal or Italy. Over in UK, the only wine I seem not to have a reaction to is Sainsburys’ own label vino verde – so I can now at least join in a toast. What I really miss though is champagne – does anyone know of a low-sulphite equivalent that I could try?

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