Food allergies are a terrifying thing – the idea of a child’s throat swelling up from touching a desk where a peanut butter sandwich previously sat, or going into anaphylaxis from a bee sting at recess – but research is showing that the “sulphite allergy” many people assume they have is likely not the case.
For decades, wines in America (and for a lesser time, wines in Europe) have come with a notice stating that they contain sulphites. Sulphites are an organic salt released as a byproduct during fermentation. Many wine drinkers lament that they cannot enjoy a glass of red due to a sulphite allergy or that they have to stop after one glass in order to avoid a headache from the sulphites. Some will ask sommeliers for sulfite-free wines. These wines do not exist. The good news? Chances are that sulfite allergy is not actually a sulphite allergy.
Here are five things most people don’t know about sulphites and sulfite allergies and the truth behind why many people think they have one:
1. The People Suffering From This Allergy Are Few And Far Between
1% of people have a sulphite allergy and if you’re not asthmatic, chances are you’re not one of them. Asthmatics have the allergy more than anyone else.
2. The Symptoms Go Beyond Headaches
A headache from red wine is likely a hangover – a sign that you are dehydrated when drinking. Sulfite allergies include hives; rashes; swelling of the lips, face and tongue; trouble breathing including wheezing; and anaphylaxis. Drinking enough water throughout the day and between glasses of wine can help with the headache.
3. They’re Not Just In Wine
Sulfites are not just found in red wine. And there are actually more sulphites in white wine. But, sulphites are also found in:
- wine coolers
- dried fruits and vegetables (and anything containing these ingredients)
- beverages made from dried citrus fruit
- some vinegars
- some salad dressing mixes
- modified food starches
- spinach pasta
- some gravies
- certain breading and batter mixes
- certain noodle and rice mixes
- trail mix
- peanut butter or cheese filled snack crackers
- maraschino cherries and glazed fruits
- fish and shellfish
- frozen, canned and dried shrimp; dried cod, scallops, frozen lobster and canned clams
- fruit fillings
- flavored and unflavored gelatin, pectin gelling agents
- canned, bottled and frozen fruit juices
- jelly and jam
- shredded coconut
- seafood soup and dried soup mixes
- brown, powdered, raw or white sugar derived from sugar beets
- anything containing high-fructose corn syrup
- maple syrup
- most fruit toppings
- instant teas or teas made from liquid concentrates
- any product containing potatoes or other vegetables that are pickled or dried
4. Food Is An Answer
Drinking without eating or on an empty stomach is the second most likely culprit behind that wine headache. If you don’t experience allergy-like symptoms every time you drink chances are the times you do are when you are running low on calories.
5. If You Do Have A Sulphite Allergy, Your Doctor Is The Expert
Many wine shops contain a “sulphite free” section. Do not buy wines from this section if you have an actual sulphite allergy. There is no such thing as a sulfite free wine. There are wines with no additional sulfites added beyond those that are produced naturally, although most are not very good and if you are allergic to sulfites you will not be able to tolerate these. A diagnosis of a sulphite allergy should only include a diet as approved by your physician or allergist.
So how is it that so many people believe they have a sulfite allergy? As with many things, when we hear information enough times we start to believe it. Someone told us, possibly someone we trust, so it must be true. And then we pass it along. Maybe you had a terrible headache after drinking a few glasses of red. Someone turned to you and said, “My sister gets that – it’s a sulfite allergy! Switch to white.” Not wanting to feel that way again, you do. Of course, switching to white would make an actual allergy worse.
In American, an anti-alcohol senator, Strom Thurmond (famous for voting against America’s Civil Rights Act), penned legislation requiring the labeling of all wines containing sulfites. His motivation, however, was not to protect those with sulfite allergies but instead to demonize wine and alcohol. This lead to all kinds of hysteria about sulfites in wine and how dangerous it could be. The tell tale sign that sulfite allergies are not as common as you would think? That huge list of foods containing sulfites: not one of those is covered under the same law.
While sulfite allergies do exist and are incredibly dangerous, chances are slight that you have one – and chances are pretty much non-existant if don’t suffer from asthma. Drink responsibly, stay hydrated, eat a little and always follow the advice of your doctor.