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).
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.