The Urban Legend of Sulfites
DEBUNKING THE MYTH
It is only occasionally that I see such a common sense article, which reflects almost exactly what I have said to many people in the past regarding sulfites in wine. The author of the following article, contributing columnist Richard Olsen-Harbich, has worked in the Long Island wine industry since 1981, and has been a leader in establishing regional identity and vinification techniques for the region. He is a graduate of Cornell University, and over the past 28 years he has assisted in implementing many pioneering techniques for Long Island vineyards, such as permanent cover crops, high-density spacing, low-wire trellising, soil pH management and varietal selection. He was also the lead author of all three federally recognized Long Island American Viticultural Areas. – Denman Moody
(Reprinted with permission from the author.)
All of the stories are the same and involve a couple returning from a recent trip to Europe. The couple talks about how they drank wine like crazy and never once had a hangover. They reminisce about how they met local winemakers who told them “American wines all have sulfites and ours don’t.” The couple agrees that when they are back home in the U.S. they cannot drink wine the same way and enjoy it as much. They insist that the sulfites used in American wine gives them a headache and they inevitably want to know why we have to use them. They usually try to stick to white wine because of the sulfites in reds. They never buy another bottle of American wine.
The reality is that this is an actual story that has been told to me many times. My answer to them is always the same: “Perhaps it has something to do with you being relaxed and on vacation!” I tell them the reason they feel so good in Europe is simple; “You know, being away from home, the kids, the pets, the daily grind of work, sleeping a little later, having lots of “intimate time.’”
At this point most of them give me dirty looks and shake their heads in disbelief. Some of the wives will snort and elbow their husbands in the ribs. I try to explain there’s nothing in the medical literature proving sulfites have anything to do with headaches and that red wines contain lower levels of sulfites compared to whites. By now of course, I’ve lost them.
Whatever people may want to believe, one thing is for certain. The problem is not sulfites. It’s time for this urban legend to be debunked.
The fact is that many European wine producers are habitual, shameless liars. Though not required to put it on the label in their country of origin, many imported wines contain higher levels
of sulfites than domestic products. European wineries are allowed to use far more additives than we are in the U.S. They invented additives for wines. For over 400 years, European wine producers studied the effects of sulfur in wine. They learned to understand that good wine could not be made without its use. We learned everything we know about it from them and have continued to improve our knowledge.
Let’s get one thing straight—all wines contain sulfites whether added or not. Wines without any added sulfur can still contain anywhere from 5-40 milligrams per liter. The same yeasts that convert sugar into alcohol also produce sulfite as a by-product. The human body actually produces about 1 gram per day.
Dude, if that’s not like, natural, I don’t know what is. Chances are you will ingest more sulfites in your average restaurant dinner than from a glass of your favorite wine. French fries, scalloped potatoes, shellfish, soy flour, maple syrup, guacamole, sushi, olives, pizza, cheese, crackers, and fish—the list goes on—can contain more sulfites (in milligrams per liter) than most wines. The average bag of dried fruit and nuts contain about 10 times the amount of sulfites found in a bottle of wine. Why doesn’t anyone ever complain about Gorp giving them a headache?
Sulfite in wine was not an issue until the mid 1980s. Remember seeing those three-dollar an hour franchise restaurant employees spraying stuff over the salad bar? A couple of asthma attacks and a few anti-alcohol legislators later and—voila—we had a warning label for wine. Some European producers saw this as an opportunity to set themselves apart from their up-and-coming American competitors. Don’t be fooled—all wine is made pretty much the same way no matter where it’s from.
Don’t get me wrong; the folks who are allergic to sulfites have to be very careful. The most dangerous reaction to sulfites involves anaphylactic shock that constricts the breathing passages and severely lowers blood pressure. This type of reaction only occurs in about 0.4 percent of the total population or about 150,000 people. In comparison, about 4 percent of the population (about 11 million people) suffer from severe food allergies. As an example, peanuts are far more dangerous than sulfites can ever be. Since 1990, the FDA has reported 19 sulfite-related deaths—none of them from wine. Most of them were from prescription drugs containing high levels of sulfites (200ppm and higher). Peanut allergies alone result in at least 100 deaths per year.
So what’s my point? As I tell my customers, unless you are one of the few who are truly allergic, you shouldn’t worry about sulfites in wine. If you want to worry, there is something in wine you should be very concerned about. Alcohol is a well-documented toxin to the human body and a known carcinogen at high levels of consumption. It typically makes up 10 percent-16 percent by volume of an average bottle of wine. What do you think has a greater chance of causing you harm—30 parts per million of sulfite or 12 percent alcohol by volume?
According to the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependency, about 105,000 people in the U.S. die annually from alcohol-related causes, which includes everything from falls to drunk driving accidents to cirrhosis of the liver. Add to this the tens of millions affected by alcohol-related illness and addiction. Sobering stuff, I know, but part of enjoying and appreciating wine must include respecting it and practicing moderation.
As a society, we tend to react negatively to the awful sounding names that science has given some very ordinary and natural things—many of which have been around far longer than human beings. The goal of science is to examine, identify and find the truth. We need to do a better job of stepping back and understanding the bigger picture. And the next time you’re in Europe on vacation, remember to enjoy yourself, drink lots of good wine and set those little old, lying winemakers straight.