Wine Intolerances: wine allergy, effect of sulphites, headaches and breathing difficulties

Posted on January 30, 2017 by Alexander Thomson McLean | 0 comments

Wine Allergies, sulphites in wine

Health, just like wine, is a very important topic that we really should cover here. We all know some scary facts about calories in wine and how many units are in a glass or bottle of wine. You know all those things you happen to under estimate when you go to visit your doctor. If you think you have it bad, remember I own a wine shop! We really should consider better drinking habits, especially if the retirement age continues to increase at its current rate! Some of those actions you can take towards a healthier drinking.

This time, let’s consider wine intolerances including sulphites and allergies

I used to consider myself as a person, who for some reason has absolutely nothing to use as an excuse to get out of work for the day when the sun is taunting me high up in the sky! But after researching and chatting to my customers it is obvious that I am exceptionally lucky and that these allergies can be life altering in so many ways. I used to have a friend and he was basically allergic to everything. He hated pollen and had to take hay fever pills, which also meant avoiding beer gardens and I would never buy him coffee! The look you would get back from a barista was like the evil version of Blue Steel! The dairy thing though was actually recommended to him by another friend pharmacist. He was complaining about it one day after discussing his sore throat far too often. After he switched to almond milk for my coffees and shakes I started to see the effect.

So, to quote a classic cliché, knowledge is power. So since my friend has discovered his intolerances so I thought why not use his experience to discuss intolerances. Mainly though it’s because I can’t discuss any of my own. Let’s call him Bob, just in case he comes up again. So where and how does this lead us to wine and wine intolerances? Let’s find out what these intolerances are, along with their symptoms and then how to deal with it. Since I obviously want to give you as much information as possible, there will be some attached information and resources for those who want to dig deeper. I have searched through tons of articles in UK, Canadian, Australian and US press, allergy related bodies and health associations, so you have a wealth of information.

I have no idea how I have managed to find any time to make money! Anyway let’s begin.

What are wine intolerances? Sulphite sensitivity symptoms.

Based on Oxford Companion to Wine, there is a major difference between an allergy which is an immunological condition and intolerances, which are of other causes. So a wine allergy can occur because of proteinaceous compounds. Traces of protein can remain in wine after fermentation, so are those occurring after fining when specific agents were used to clarify and stabilise the wine.
Apart from that, there is also a pollen-food allergy factor - some pollens can still remain in fruit skins and this can cause a reaction that can be described as oral itching.

Somewhere in the borderline of allergies and intolerances are biogenic amines histamine and tyramine, which are produced by lactic acid bacteria and higher levels of those are present in red wines. People suffer from headaches and refer to it as red wine intolerance. If we move to white wines, the main factor for an intolerance here is sulphur dioxide, or sulphites / sulfites. Asthmatics are especially sensitive to those.

Thankfully I have been doing my research in the morning before I’ve had any wine!

Both red and white wines contain sulphites as it is a by product of fermentation as it is a natural product within the fruit itself, yet naturally occurring sulphites are not exceeding 10 mg /l and will not in most cases be noticed even by asthmatics. If they are added and the concentration is below 45 mg/l it is general accepted to be fine for most of people and will not cause intolerances, yet with a higher concentration (which can go way above 100 and 150 mg/l) there will be some issues.

The main symptoms are creating difficulties, airway irritation, rhinitis, tight chest, coughing and wheezing. Some digestive issues and symptoms were reported as stomach cramps, nausea, and diarrhoea. The incidence of sulphite sensitivity in the general population is thought to be less than 2%, but this rises to between 5 and 13% in asthmatics. However, adverse reactions to sulphites can also occur when there is no preceding history of asthma. Reactions can be mild through to potentially life threatening.

How to deal with sulphite intolerance or wine allergy

Unfortunately there is no such thing as a cure or even a treatment, but if you feel that you might have (or diagnosed with) sulphite intolerance you should start avoiding of sulphite-containing foods, medicines and cosmetics. Depending on your level of intolerance this might not be an easy job! For many it will only mean to avoid foods with the highest sulphite content. If you have an intolerance that’s verging on an allergy, then you will need to be very particular in avoiding even trace amounts in foods, medicines and cosmetics. Sadly, they are everywhere, over the counter medication, hand soap, anti-bacterial wipes for your kitchen! Absolutely everywhere.

Symptoms arising from exposure to sulphites are treated according to the symptoms (e.g. anti-histamines or steroids for rashes, inhalers for asthma). If you are more sensitive to sulphites, then the most important thing is going to know how to treat your symptoms, and be able to do so when, for example, you are eating away from home. Your favourite sushi restaurant is probably ok, however your favourite pub lunch, most likely not.

In the UK sulphites are now on a list of the twelve potential allergens (along with the likes of peanuts, fish, crustaceans, gluten and milk) that have to be labelled on a food or drink product - where they appear at a certain level or above. Warnings are now common on products such as wine or cider - yet in practice there is still a huge amount of misinformation, which leads to misconceptions and myths about their use and most importantly the health problems they can cause and inflame.

What you really should do if you feel like you have an issue, is consult your doctor. I can sit and wade through all this material, then rewrite and preach all this information and upload it into the worldly and always factual forum that is the internet. But as we are all different and special in our pretty ways your doctor can help to diagnose you correctly.

Sulphites in Wine & Food

So when knowledge is power how do you stay fully in the loop if you are indeed sensitive to sulphites when looking to buy sulphite-free products. There is so many regulations and rules and special exemption rules, where do you look and what do you trust. Let me give you some examples I’ve put into wine terms after a chat with Bob and his search for no dairy.

Sulphite-free wines - why do some of them have 'contains sulphites' on the label? All wines contain naturally occurring sulphites, but the levels are very low - up to 20 mg/l. By law only the wines that contain less than 10 mg/l do not need include that on the label. We have referenced all wines and the ones that are listed as sulphite-free or no sulphite added have less than 20 mg/l of sulphites. People who suffer from intolerances start noticing it when concentration exceeds 45 mg/l only.

Why does it say both ‘contains sulphites’ and ‘no added sulphites’?

This really is even more confusing to a consumer. Imagine the frustration when you’re in a supermarket and finally find a wine you can drink and come back and buy every week if you like it! Well as the sulphite level can fluctuate at times dependant on the soil and pollution levels for example, sometimes only some of the grapes have a slightly higher sulphite content. So when you have picked all these grapes then trampled on then all, some batches may have a level of 11 mg/l and some with a lower level of 8 mg/l. Technically the bottles are allowed to say that there is no added sulphites, as this is actually true. But with the legal requirement being less than 10 mg/l then it also needs to say so. Actually this is not that complicated, but if you didn’t know it is a bit weird.

It is also agreed that the true prevalence of sulphite sensitivity in the general population is not known and the real causes are very complex. More research is needed, but in the meantime please also find other products that you may want to check the labels for sulphite concentration (apart from wine.) In order for this research to be carried out people need to start looking at themselves and talking about it. More research and more money for that research will only come if there is a need for it!

So lets create that demand. Get online and talk about your intolerances!

For Your Information: foods which may contain hgh levels of added sulphites include:

  • pickled foods and vinegar

  • dried fruit eg dried apricots, prunes, raisins etc

  • maraschino cherries

  • tinned coconut milk

  • beer and cider

  • vegetable juices

  • some soft drinks

  • grape juice

  • bottled lemon juice and lime juice

  • condiments (bottled sauces etc.)

  • guacamole

  • dehydrated, pre-cut or peeled potatoes

  • fresh or frozen prawns

  • some processed meat products


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