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Are You Allergic to Wine?

Are You Allergic to Wine?

I worked at a wine shop for a couple of years, and I can’t tell you the number of times customers told me they couldn’t drink red wine because they were allergic to sulfites. While I never doubted that they had a reaction to something in the red wine, I was skeptical about the sulfites claim, so I did a little digging in the library (this was pre-Google) and discovered that a true sulfite allergy is quite rare. So, how to explain the adverse reactions to red wine?

Almost 20 years after my initial research on the subject, there are still many unanswered questions. This recent article on ABC News cites a study in Northern Europe in which 8 percent of those surveyed said wine causes them to have an allergic reaction. Complaints range from headaches to a flushed face to a runny nose. Since there are only a tiny number of documented cases of people being allergic to the actual wine grapes, the oft-cited target for blame is sulfites, which occur naturally in wine, but are also added to prevent early spoilage.

Poor sulfites always get the blame, since winemakers are required by law to list them on the label, but the wine labels don’t tell the whole story. Researchers found that only 1 percent of people react to sulfites, and even then, the sulfite levels in red wine are much lower than in dried fruit. So if you can eat dried apricots without a reaction, but get a headache from wine, you are probably in the other 7 percent of people who react to something else in the wine other than sulfites.

There several other compounds found in wine that could lead to reactions, including histamines, which are in higher concentrations in red wines, and could cause allergy-like symptoms. Egg whites are another potential allergen used in the winemaking process, sometimes dropped into wine barrels in very small amounts to remove cloudiness.

In an inflammatory article in the U.K. Telegraph, the reporter quotes Malcolm Gluck, author of the book The Great Wine Swindle, as saying that “Many, many wines are no better than alcoholic cola. You get artificial yeasts, enzymes, sugar, extracts, tannins, all sorts of things added.” It’s not surprising to learn that a lot of plonk contains bogus ingredients, but I’m willing to bet than most of the bottles sold in North America in the $10-30 range, are legit, which is not to say that people won’t still have adverse reactions to them.

Wines are complex – that’s why we love them. Unfortunately, that complexity comes with a price for some people – headaches (and I’m talking about the non-hangover variety) and itchy eyes. Until there’s more conclusive research about what’s causing those reactions, your best bet is to try a little bit of the wine to see if you react, rather than simply shunning all reds because you had a bad reaction of one of them. And unless you’ve been diagnosed with a bona-fide allergy to sulfites, don’t immediately jump on them as the culprit.

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“Are You Allergic to Wine?”