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Sulfites have been linked to negative responses in certain wine consumers, but a new study by Sophie Parker-Thomson claims that sulfite-free bottlings are more likely to produce symptoms including headaches and watery eyes.

Instead of sulfites, a group of chemicals known as biogenic amines is more likely to be the cause, according to Parker-Thomson (BA).

Biogenic amines are found in all fermented foods and beverages, and their levels rise as the food spoils. They’re made from amino acids by enzymatic activity in living creatures such as microorganisms, which are mostly bacteria. Microbes generate histamine, the most well-known biogenic amine, by removing carbon dioxide from the amino acid histidine.

The body produces histamine, which is involved in immunological and allergy reactions. If you have hay fever, you may take an antihistamine to reduce the amount of this biogenic amine produced by your body.

Tyramine, putrescine, and phenylethylamine are some of the other biogenic amines present in food and wine. All may have undesirable adverse effects in high doses. However, thinking of them as poisons is incorrect since they all play important physiological functions.

Dietary biogenic amines are normally not an issue since they are metabolized by enzymes called monoamine oxidases (MAO) and diamine oxidases (DAO). However, if these enzymes are blocked, or if the chemicals are present in large amounts in food or drink, symptoms such as headaches, difficulty breathing, hypertension or hypotension, allergic reactions, and palpitations may occur.

Malolactic fermentation wine studyLallemand Oenology provided the wine samples for the malolactic fermentation tests.

Sulfites are added to almost all wines to preserve them from oxidation and to keep harmful microorganisms at bay. Some asthmatics, however, have negative responses at larger doses. A wine that contains more than 10 milligrams per liter (mg/L) of sulfur dioxide must state on the label that it “contains sulfites.” As a result, individuals who have negative reactions to some wines may blame it on the sulfites.

Controlling microbial development makes it easy to produce wines with minimal biogenic amines. During the early stages of fermentation, a blast of sulfur dioxide during grape receipt or crushing will kill bacteria and many wild yeasts.

“Even at an early stage of grape reception, higher pH and less SO2 addition definitely promote biogenic amine production,” explains Dr. Sibylle Krieger, head of wine bacteria research at Lallemand Oenoloy.

Sulfur dioxide also makes it possible for winemakers to use a specific Saccharomyces cerevisiae strain during fermentation. When the wine is completed, winemakers may opt to inoculate malolactic fermentation with a strain of lactic acid bacteria that produces little biogenic amines. Finally, the wine is given a large dosage of sulfur dioxide to help protect it against biogenic amines.

According to Krieger, inoculating the wine to prevent biogenic amine synthesis is the best way to obtain low sulfite levels. This keeps the harmful germs out of your house.

Many commercial wines are produced using these biogenic-amine-safe techniques, but premium winemakers have shifted away from microbial control in recent years. Many proponents of natural wine omit sulfites altogether or add them only during bottling, resulting in wines with high levels of biogenic amines.

Sibylle Kriegercourtesy of Lallemand Oenology/Dr. Sibylle Krieger

As a result, all winemakers must ask themselves: How much BA is too much BA? Aside from seafood, there are no legislative restrictions on food. Will biogenic amines in wines, especially those produced without sulfites, ever constitute an issue for the overwhelming majority of people?

Parker-Thomson claims in her study article that wines produced without a high level of microbial control should be labeled with a warning.

“There is also a compelling case that wines with very high BA levels should be labeled with a warning, since these hazardous levels may harm healthy people even when modest quantities of these wines are consumed,” she adds. “According to the findings of this research, wines produced with no-low-SO2 had the greatest BA levels.

“If SO2 additions are unacceptable for the natural wine movement, maybe zero-added-SO2 wines should be required to display a high-BA notice until they can demonstrate otherwise,” she adds.

Doug Wregg, who works for Les Caves de Pyrene, a natural wine import firm headquartered in the United Kingdom, disagrees.

“It smells like bureaucratic meddling,” Wregg adds, “but it’s based on a strange distortion of the truth.” “Wine includes a variety of chemicals that may only be harmful to one’s health if drunk in large amounts. Many wines contain residues of mercury, according to laboratory findings. Would you include a warning on the label that says, “This product contains mercury?”

BA is similar to sulfites, which are found in a variety of foods. He recalls a recent sulfite response he had to mortadella, which he believes was an allergic reaction.

“Sulfite is not harmful in and of itself,” he adds, “but it may cause intolerances and allergic responses that are caused by excessive sulfite levels.” “At least, that’s what my experience has taught me.

He adds, “Finally, there’s the thin-end-of-the-wedge argument.” “If you label a wine as having high biogenic amines, which is a characteristic rather than an additive, you may as well include every single addition and procedure, just in case one or more, alone or in combination, has a health impact on a certain person. Most histamine-intolerant people know not to consume wine, especially red wine.”

Doug Wregg natural wine fairHesh Hipp photographed Doug Wregg.

When compared to reported BA levels in other foods, wine isn’t especially high. Histamine levels in red wine are 19.6 mg/L, whereas white wine is just 1.1 mg/L. The histamine content in two-day-old fish is 209 mg/L, whereas canned tuna (60 mg/L), fermented soy (46.2 mg/L), and fresh fish (23 mg/L) all have higher levels than wine.

Legislating BA content is challenging since we don’t know what amounts are harmful to the majority of individuals. Individual responses may also vary greatly. Some antidepressants may induce amine sensitivity by inhibiting enzymes. The activity of these enzymes is said to be reduced by 30% in smokers. Their activity may also be suppressed by alcohol.

The natural wine movement would be essentially killed if regulators insisted on a low-BA winemaking procedure. Winegrowers would face a considerable financial and administrative burden if they were to test their wines for biogenic amines.

Biogenic amines are not universally seen as a concern in wine.

“There has always been some confusion between allergic responses to certain wines, and the first jump is usually that it is due to one of the biogenic amines,” says wine scientist Roger Boulton, professor emeritus of enology at University of California, Davis. “I have never been convinced… that there is a link or an issue.”

Others argue that alcohol is a poison in and of itself.

“Given that wine usually contains 12–14 percent ethanol, a recognized carcinogen,” says Marcus Herderich of the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI), an industry organization.

Between 2003 and 2009, the AWRI evaluated mean histamine concentrations in Australian red and white wines, finding 1.75 and 0.59 mg/L, respectively. According to the research, considerably higher amounts of histamine would be required to induce physiological reactions.

According to Herderich, “adding superfluous and unjustified health warnings does not assist anybody in the industry.” “It’s utter lunacy to identify any possible issue component in wine,” says the author.

Wines that have undergone malolactic fermentation should be avoided by individuals who are sensitive to biogenic amines. This information is difficult to come by, although it applies to most Rieslings and Sauvignon Blancs, as well as certain Chardonnays.

If you like reds, look for a well-known brand that uses a lot of sulfur dioxide right out of the gate.

But it’s too soon, and perhaps unhelpful, to label biogenic amines in wine as a health risk.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What ingredient in wine causes headaches?

The headache-causing ingredient in wine is usually alcohol.

Why does wine give me an instant headache?

The headache you are experiencing is caused by the alcohol in the wine.

How do you get rid of a wine headache?

This is a difficult question to answer. There are many different ways that you can go about getting rid of a wine headache, but the best way would be to drink more water and eat something light like crackers or toast.

This article broadly covered the following related topics:

  • white wine and headaches
  • red wine headache
  • red wine headache cure
  • why does american wine give me a headache
  • wines that don’t cause headaches
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