Sulfites are a food preservative widely used in winemaking, thanks to their ability to maintain the flavor and freshness of wine.

While they’re found in many foods and beverages, they’re particularly associated with a long list of side effects related to wine consumption, including the dreaded wine-induced headache.

Research suggests that these compounds may affect some people more than others.

While some people can tolerate sulfites, others may experience serious side effects, such as hives, swelling, and stomach pain.

This article looks at the uses and side effects of sulfites in wine, plus some easy ways to limit your sulfite intake.

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Sulfites, also commonly called sulfur dioxide, are chemical compounds that contain the sulfite ion.

They are found naturally in a variety of food sources, including black tea, peanuts, eggs, and fermented foods.

They are also used as a preservative in many foods.

In fact, these compounds are commonly added to soft drinks, juices, jams, jellies, sausages, and dried or pickled fruits and vegetables to slow spoilage and prevent discoloration (1).

They are also used by winemakers to help minimize oxidation in wine and maintain its freshness.

Thanks to their antimicrobial properties, these compounds can also prevent bacterial growth to prolong the shelf life of wines and other products (2).

Summary

Sulfites are a group of chemical compounds found naturally in some foods and added to others as a food preservative. They are also often added to wine to prevent oxidation and maximize freshness.

Sulfites are used throughout the food industry as a flavor enhancer and food preservative.

They are especially important in the winemaking process, in which they are used to improve taste, appearance, and shelf life (3).

In particular, they can help prevent the wine from browning, a process that can alter the wine’s color and flavor (4, 5).

Some research also shows that these additives can help block the growth of bacteria to prevent contamination and spoilage (2).

Additionally, certain types, such as potassium metabisulfite, are used to sanitize winemaking barrels and equipment (6).

Summary

Sulfites can help inhibit bacterial growth, prevent browning, and sanitize equipment used in wine production.

Most people can safely consume the sulfites found in wine with minimal risk of adverse side effects.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), an estimated 1% of the population is sensitive to sulfites, and about 5% of those individuals have asthma as well (7).

For those with asthma who are sensitive to these compounds, consuming them can irritate the respiratory tract (1).

These compounds may also cause headaches in those who are sensitive.

One study in 80 people with a history of wine-induced headaches found that consuming wine with a higher concentration of sulfites was linked to a greater risk of headaches (8).

However, several other compounds in wine, such as alcohol, histamine, tyramine, and flavonoids, may also contribute to symptoms (9).

Other potential side effects of sulfites have been reported as well, including hives, swelling, stomach pain, diarrhea, and, in rare cases, anaphylaxis, a severe and potentially fatal allergic reaction (1).

Summary

A small percentage of the population is sensitive to sulfites and may experience side effects like headaches, hives, swelling, stomach pain, and diarrhea. In those with asthma, these compounds can also irritate the respiratory tract.

If you think that you may have a sensitivity to sulfites, limiting your consumption is key to preventing adverse health effects.

Although all wine naturally contains small amounts, many manufacturers have started producing wines without added sulfites.

You can also opt for red wine, which has significantly lower concentrations than other varieties, such as white wine or dessert wine (9).

Additionally, be sure to steer clear of other sulfite-containing foods, such as dried apricots, pickles, soft drinks, jams, jellies, and juices (1).

Reading food labels can help you determine which foods you should limit in your diet.

Check the label for ingredients like sodium sulfite, sodium bisulfite, sulfur dioxide, potassium bisulfite, and potassium metabisulfite, all of which can indicate that a food product contains added sulfites.

These compounds are required to be labeled in foods and beverages that contain more than 10 parts per million (ppm) sulfur dioxide (10).

Summary

If you are sensitive to sulfites, opt for red wine or wine without added sulfites to help reduce your intake. Check ingredient labels carefully, and avoid other products with high concentrations of these compounds to help limit your intake.

Sulfites are a chemical compound used to improve the appearance, taste, and shelf life of wine and other products.

While most people can tolerate sulfites without issue, some may experience stomach pain, headaches, hives, swelling, and diarrhea.

If you’re sensitive to these compounds, opt for red wine or wine made without added sulfites to help limit your consumption and prevent negative side effects.