Busting the Sulfite Myth - Why They Don't Cause Your Hangover

Busting the Sulfite Myth

Sulfites get a bad rap. They’re often blamed for that unexplained, raging hangover after what seemed like a tame night on the wine. But are Sulfites actually that bad and are they to blame for your hangover?

What are Sulfites?

Sulphur dioxide (SO2) is actually a very common preservative and it is indispensable to the vast majority of wineries. This is because it acts as an antioxidant, slowing the negative effects of oxidation on the wine and preserving its fruity flavours. It also acts as an antiseptic and is toxic to many bacteria that would otherwise impart unwanted flavours on the wine. It is important to note that Sulphur dioxide can be added and monitored throughout the winemaking process but it also occurs naturally during fermentation.

Are Sulfites Exclusive to Wine?

Nope! In fact, you will find sulphites in many of the foods and drinks that you love. They occur naturally in:

  • Eggs
  • Black tea
  • Cabbage
  • Garlic
  • Onions
  • Plums

They are also additives in many other food and drinks such as:

  • Sauces
  • Bacon
  • Dried fruit
  • Drinks (cider, beer)
  • Baked goods
  • Frozen fruit and vegetables
  • Crisps and other snacks

Are Sulfites Bad For You?

In short, nope! Don’t get me wrong, Sulphur dioxide can be harmful to humans but the levels found in all wine falls well below the levels considered toxic so you’ll be fine. The levels found in wine (usually 20-200 parts per million or PPM) are even much lower than those found in dried fruit (500 – 3000 PPM) or bacon (600 – 800 PPM). However, sulfite intolerance is a thing and those with asthma are particularly susceptible with around 5% of asthmatics being affected. But even then, intolerance to Sulphur dioxide affects less than 1% of the population.

Are Sulfites Causing My Hangover?

Probably not. Andrew Waterhouse, professor of enology at UC Davis recently spoke to Decanter on the matter and he stated: “There is no medical research data showing that sulphites cause headaches”. You’ve got to ask yourself too, are you getting the feelings of a hangover after eating dried fruits, bacon, crisps or any baked goods? If not, then sulfites aren’t causing your hangover!

But My Hangovers Are Worse Than Usual...

Absolutely, but that could be for a number of reasons such as how hydrated you are during your drinking session. It could also be the level of tannins in the wine as studies have linked a higher level of tannin with severe hangovers. It may even be that you’re suffering from a red wine headache too. This often occurs when you’ve drunk wines that contain large amounts of histamine. Histamine is a chemical involved in your immune and digestion systems and many people have an intolerance to this compound. The next time you’ve got a headache or even suffering from flushes after drinking a glass of red then it may be down to a histamine intolerance.

So Why Do Sulfites Get A Bad Rap?

To quote one prominent politician: “The Fake News Media”! I’m kidding on this point, though it’s not uncommon to see reader’s letters in newspapers stating that sulfites caused their hangovers. The term “contains sulfites” doesn’t help either as negative connotations usually follow the term. It has been displayed on all bottles in the USA Europe for a while and only wines with less than 10PPM are exempt. The problem is that the natural fermentation process often produces more than this so wineries are expected to include it on the bottle even if they’ve made a conscious decision to not add any SO2!

But What About Wineries Who Wish to Eradicate the Use of Sulfites?

For these winemakers, it is often borne out of stylistic choice rather than major concern for the health of the population. Many winemakers believe that adding SO2 actually has a negative impact on the subtle nuances of the vineyard and the flavours they can impart on the wine. Some winemakers simply want to produce additive-free wine which isn’t a bad thing, though it is a costly and laborious process.

So, the next time you’ve got a raging hangover and you can’t explain it, think twice before rushing to blame sulfites. There could be many reasons as to why you look and feel like a hot mess!