Many individuals get concerned about the presence of sulfites in wine, fearing that these chemicals might negatively affect their health. Some even blame that it gives them a headache? But are sulfites in wine really bad for our health? And why are they even there? Before we answer these questions, let us understand what sulfites are and how they end up in our wine.

What are sulfites?

Sulfites encompass sulfur-based compounds like sulfur dioxide, potassium bisulfite, potassium metabisulfite, sodium bisulfite, sodium metabisulfite, or sodium sulfite. Although certain foods naturally contain sulfites, they are also employed as preservatives or enhancers to thwart oxidation and spoilage.

Sulfites naturally occur in wine through a byproduct of yeast fermentation of sugar, resulting in the creation of alcohol and carbon dioxide within the grape juice. However, these naturally occurring sulfites make up for a small quantity. To prevent bacterial spoilage and oxidisation, winemakers further add sulfites like sulfur dioxide in wine. To monitor the quantity of the compounds being added, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India has issued a guideline, according to which any wine that contains more than 10 mg sulfur dioxide per litre, must declare so on its label.

The amount of sulfites present in wine depends on its variety. Wines with higher acidity need lesser sulfites in comparison to those with low acidity. This is due to wines having a pH of 3.6 and above, making them less stable. Therefore, sulfites are introduced to enhance their shelf life. Also, clearer wines (white wines) have more sulfites as compared to those with colour (red wines). The deeper the colour of a wine, the lesser sulfite it needs for stabilisation.

The presence or absence of sugar too dictates the amount of sulfites added. Wines with higher sugar content have more sulfites as it prevents secondary fermentation, while dry wines need it in lesser quantities.

How much should you worry about sulfites in wine?

Sulfites are not exclusive to wine. They find application in various other food products such as dried fruits, nuts, cheeses, cured meats, sauces, French fries, and even packets of wafers. In fact, many of these food items, like dried apricots, pre-packaged meats, bottled lemon juice or pickled onions may contain a relatively higher amount of sulfites than wine.

Now, if you are eating any of these food items and you develop a skin rash or breathing issues, then perhaps you should consult your doctor to check for a sulfite allergy. If indeed you are allergic to sulfites, then you should steer clear of any food and beverage which contains them, and that includes wines. But does this mean you have to stop drinking wine altogether? No, you can look for sulfite-free wines, like natural wines.

On the other hand, if you do not develop any adverse reactions from eating any of these other food items then you have no reason to worry about the presence of sulfites in wine.

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