Ask Wine Wizard

The Facts About Wine Headaches

TroubleShooting

M. Alice Waymack — Poughkeepsie, New York asks,
Q

I saw an article on Facebook about a tool that reduces the amount of sulfur dioxide (sulfites) in a glass of wine. Their claim is you could then drink wine without getting a hangover or “wine headache.” Do you think this is legit?

A

I’ve seen a few of these kinds of articles (ahem, I mean advertisements) floating around on the internet and it always results in an epic Wine Wizard “facepalm” upon reading.

For starters, sulfur dioxide doesn’t contribute to hangovers. This has been proven time and time again, so much so that I sometimes feel like a broken record when I talk about it. There are indeed people with a true “sulfite allergy,” i.e. they lack the digestive enzyme sulfur dioxide dehydrogenase and know to stay away from wine, beer, deli meat, dried fruit, and any number of other food products that contain sulfites. However, they constitute less than 0.10% of the population in general.

Indeed, there is no such thing as a sulfur dioxide-free wine as yeast cells naturally produce 10 ppm or even more during a natural yeast fermentation cycle. Dr. Linda Bisson from UC-Davis, a source I often consult about these kinds of issues, wrote as part of a response to me, “People do not realize that we make grams of SO2 per day in our own bodies and those folks who are sensitive (to sulfites) have an enzyme deficiency.”

Dr. Andrew Waterhouse, also of UC-Davis, further elaborated, “Most studies of sulfites overlook the fact that we produce almost a gram of sulfites in our cells every day. Thus a few milligrams from a glass of wine, etc, is hardly going to overload our natural systems for breaking down  the sulfite.”

It is so tempting to blame sulfur dioxide (SO2) for hangovers. After all sulfur has always had something of a devilish reputation. Unfortunately, for those touting SO2-free wine as being headache and hangover-free — the facts say otherwise. Most evidence suggests that the true culprit of the “red-wine headache” (aside from the obvious dehydration and effects of ethyl alcohol, the largest hangover culprit) is actually naturally-occurring histamines that are products of fermentation. Histamines are histidine-derived amine compounds found in many foods and all fermented drinks. Some people are more sensitive to them than others. They are particularly associated with red wines because these are made using the grape skins, and it is probably no coincidence that more people seem to get red wine hangovers and headaches than those drinking white. In fact white wine typically contains more SO2 than red.

For anyone to suggest they are marketing a tool or gadget that will prevent hangovers and enable you to drink as much alcohol as you like, consequence-free, is irresponsible. Removing sulfites in wine (even if their tool is effective as advertised) will not remove biogenic amines and ethyl alcohol, the two main contributors to the negative “morning after” effects of drinking.

Response by Alison Crowe.