“I can’t drink red wine because the sulfur gives me a headache!”
This is a wine myth that has been circling around forever. It’s almost like hearing our elder aunts say “wear socks so you don’t catch a cold.” Huh? Sometimes we all repeat things that don’t make sense because we just honestly never gave much thought to the actual words we are saying, nor have we taken the time to fact-check information for ourselves.
So lets break this one down.
The sulfur myth is untrue because the numbers just don’t add up. In fact, sulfur amounts in wine are usually so low and often undetectable, it would be highly unlikely to cause a headache or any discomfort for the average drinker.
Why is sulfur even in wine? It is used in tiny quantities to preserve the wine, keep it from spoiling, and eliminate the odors caused from bad bacteria. Without sulfur, wine could go bad very fast, or at the very least taste disgusting from the off-flavors that may develop without protection. In fact, this is no different than many of the foods we eat. Red wine has about 150 ppm (parts per million) of sulfur. But guess what has even more? Some of your favorite treats!
Let’s follow the logic here. If red wine gives you a headache, so do french fries. EXCEPT, in my 4 decades of living, I have never heard anyone blame a headache on the sulfur in fries or soda. For some reason, these delicious foods and drinks have survived the same myth that has been unfairly placed on red wine.
So if this is a myth, there must be another explanation out there. Why do some people get red wine headaches if it’s not from sulfur?
Let’s start here, the MOST likely cause. Similarly to other alcohol we know and love, the most likely reason you have a headache is from dehydration. People often drink water alongside a cocktail or liquor beverage, but I rarely see people enjoy a glass of wine with equal parts water on the side. Sometimes we forgot how powerful a single glass of wine can be! If one were to consume several glasses and blame it on the sulfur, you’ve learned nothing in all your early drinking years. Let’s be real- if you have a wine headache, you probably just drank too much. It happens to the best of us. And that’s okay, but own it my friend!
Cure: Drink lots of water. Or drink less wine.
In rare cases, some people are allergic to tannin, or are sensitive to its astringency. Tannins are are polyphenols (chemical compounds) found in grape skins. They are also found in fruits, veggies, wood, seeds, stems, leaves, bark, and a plethora of other livings plants. The compound results in a cottony mouthfeel when we eat grapes or drink wine. Some people experience allergies or an intolerance to highly tannic wine, which leaves them with a headache. Examples of red wines with high tannins are Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese.
Cure: Drink a low tannin wine like Pinot Noir, Gamay or Grenache.
Histamine Sensitivity or Allergy
Some people are allergic to histamines, which are found in wine. Although wines have varying amounts, red wines usually have 20-200% more histamines present than white wines. As a result, those that suffer from allergies or intolerance may experience headaches, sneezing, itching, or other symptoms associated with a mild to severe allergic reaction.
Cure: You can take an antihistamine before you drink, or abstain altogether. Consult with your doctor to be sure.
So there you have it!
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