Do sulphites in wine cause headaches?

The topic of wine-related headaches is indeed intriguing, and it often leads to concerns about sulphites, histamines, and tannins found in wine. However, let's delve into the facts to dispel some of the myths surrounding these potential headache triggers.

Sulphites, also spelled as "sulfites," belong to a group of sulphur-based mineral compounds that have been used for centuries as purifiers, antibacterial agents, and preservatives in food, including wine. Interestingly, sulphur is one of the most abundant mineral elements naturally present in our bodies (Nutr. Metab.).

Sulphite sensitivity is relatively rare, affecting only about 1% of people worldwide. In comparison, hay fever, primarily triggered by histamine allergies, impacts a much larger percentage of the population, ranging from 10-30% (Source: AAAAI).

In Australia, wineries are required to label their wines as "Containing Sulphites" if the sulphite concentration exceeds 10 mg/kg. However, the threshold is set at 250 mg/kg for wines with less than 35 g/L residual sugar (FSANZ). To put this into perspective, common foods like hot chips contain approximately 1,900 mg/kg, and a can of coke has about 350 mg/kg ( Furthermore, sulphites also occur naturally in many "healthful" foods.

Now, let's talk about histamines. These compounds are primarily found in fermented foods and can impact blood vessels, potentially leading to headaches (AWRI). However, this effect tends to occur at higher levels, typically ranging from 32-250 mg.

To provide some context, the average histamine concentration in red wines is roughly 1.75 mg/L, and for whites, it's about 0.59 mg/L (AWRI). To reach a concentration of 32 mg, you'd need to consume over 18 litres of red wine, or for whites, a staggering 54 litres!

Moving on to tannins, they originate from grape skins, seeds, and predominantly "new" oak barrels, contributing both flavour and antioxidants to wine. The headache factor related to tannins involves a brain reaction that releases serotonin, potentially causing headaches (Harvard Edu).

It's worth noting that tannins are not exclusive to wine; they can also be found in coffee, tea (especially black tea), and unripe fruit, including fruit juices.

So, it appears that the elusive headache culprit may not be easy to pinpoint. However, there's another crucial consideration: water.

Staying hydrated by drinking water between glasses of wine and after consuming coffee can significantly reduce the likelihood of developing a headache. So, while the exact cause of wine-related headaches remains somewhat mysterious, proper hydration is a practical step to minimise this discomfort.