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WARNING: This Column Contains Sulfites
[April, 1997]

People have had it in for sulfur--and by extension sulfites--since the beginning. Even in the Bible, sulfur gets saddled with the cool but unforgettable nickname of brimstone, making it the fragrance of hell. Later, Romans used sulfites to preserve wine, and when Mark Antony lost his three-chalice lunch in the Senate one day (we're not joking), he probably blamed it on them too. But unless you gobble up more than a three or four grams, or you're an asthmatic sensitive to them, the association of sulfites with headaches, congestion, and other maladies may be inaccurate, researchers now say.

Sulfites are the inclusive term for many sulfur-based compounds, but where wine is concerned, those are primarily potassium- and sodium metabisulfite, sulfur dioxide (SO2) and plain old stinky sulfur. In all their forms, they're hard to miss if you get your nose too close: think of the acrid and often overpowering stench of a burning match. Sulfites play a part in almost every step of winemaking: in the vineyard to suppress mildew and rot; after the crush to kill or knock back bacteria and unwanted yeasts, and to extract color in red wine; and around the winery to sterilize equipment. But perhaps the most beautiful thing about sulfites is that when added to a wine any time after fermentation, they react so readily with oxygen (the sworn enemy of wine) that oxygen can't react with anything else to promote spoilage. You may not drink wine for the sulfites, but you probably wouldn't be drinking it without them.

Sulfites aren't the exclusive province of winemakers; far from it. Looking down the FDA's list of foods which may have sulfites added to them, you'd think they could have saved paper by listing the stuff which is made without them. Beer and wine make the list, of course, but so does everything from fruit fillings, jams, and juices to cookies, maple syrup and spinach pasta, to say nothing of antibiotics, tranquilizers and analgesics. Notable by their absence are fresh fruits and vegetables, on which the FDA banned sulfites in 1986. The one exception is pre-cut or -peeled potato products--chief among them french fries--which the potato industry was able to derail on procedural grounds (those tricky white guys!). Anyway, the vast majority of these products contain a higher percentage of sulfites than do wines.

A study by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in 1985, since corroborated by other studies, reported that (reasonable levels of) sulfites pose no hazard for most Americans. The exception is certain asthmatics who are sensitive or allergic to them, in which case they can may suffer any number of symptoms from hives, nausea and diarrhea to anaphylactic shock. Luckily (unless you're one of them), this group makes up only 5% of all asthmatics, who themselves are only 5-10% of the total population. That's about 1/4 of one percent.

Still, the consequences for this population can be dire, so since 1988, the FDA has mandated that all alcoholic beverages with sulfite levels of more than 10 parts per million (ppm)--that's virtually all of them--warn consumers of this fact on their labels.

Even if you are sensitive to sulfites, there's some evidence you can still enjoy a glass now and again. Dr. Robert Bush, a leading researcher at the University of Wisconsin Clinical Sciences Center, believes that most sulfite-sensitive asthmatics do not react to sulfite residues below 100ppm, although he says other factors are involved and more research is needed. Even more compelling is the notion that as antioxidants, sulfites react with oxygen in and in contact with wine so that over time, they slowly diminish. In fact, according to Alan Bakalinsky, associate professor of food science at OSU, it's possible sulfites might effectively disappear after just a few years in contact with a wine, though many factors might affect the rate of this process.

For most people, the real culprits may be elsewhere. Histamine and tyramine, from the prolific amine family, are produced by bacteria as they break down amino acids in grape juice during fermentation. Histamine is a vasodilator, which means it expands blood vessels, potentially promoting flushing, itchiness, and shortness of breath, while tyramine is a vasoconstrictor, restricting blood flow and increasing blood pressure, possibly triggering headaches.

Unfortunately, according to Mark Daeschel, professor of fermentation science at OSU, there's no data to suggest how much of the population may be susceptible to these compounds. Mostly, he says, it's a question of the pH of the wine, whether it's red or white (red wines have more), and ultimately, how much you drink.

Scientists have also isolated phenolic compounds as potential triggers of migraines in people who are prone to them. While it's be conceivable that histamine, for instance, could be isolated out of wine ("I'll take a glass of wine and a Sudafed, waiter"), phenolics include critical tannins, the anthocyans which give wine its color, and important flavor compounds.

Though it's a great way to abdicate responsibility for views you've nevertheless offered, the old saw is still appropriate: consult your doctor, and if he or she tells you drinking wine will adversely affect your health, don't do it. Otherwise, researchers say, if you're okay drinking wine now, we'll see you in the wine section.

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©1997 Matt Giraud and James McQuillen. This column originally appeared in April, 1997 as The Crush, a bi-weekly wine column published in Willamette Week, Portland, Oregon. Matt and James alternated writing the columns; this column was written by Matt.

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