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Take a deep breath

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again now: sulphur dioxide (SO₂) is not the reason people wake up with a headache the morning after drinking wine. SO₂ doesn’t even give (morning-after) headaches to the 1% or so of the population who genuinely do suffer from sulphite intolerance.

Following exposure to SO₂ (whether in wine or at significantly higher concentration in fruit juice, dried fruits, sausages, breakfast cereals and numerous other foodstuffs usually NOT blamed for headaches by the anti-wine-sulphites brigade), these unfortunate souls will typically experience immediate bronchial difficulty ranging from coughing and shortness of breath to a life-threatening asthma attack.

Other symptoms blamed on wine sulphites range from nausea and vomiting to skin rashes, blocked sinuses and (yes) headaches, but increasingly it is believed that these are due to other wine-related allergies. Wines do, after all, contain histamines as well as glycoproteins with a cellular structure similar to common allergens (see a summary of recent scientific research here).

So it riles me to come across a new product whose website features someone clutching an icepack to his head alongside the following strapline: “Enjoy a night to remember, not a morning to forget.”

Blaming SO₂ for symptoms listed as “headaches, stuffiness and hives” in paragraph two and as “headaches, flushing of the face and nausea” in paragraph seven (note: no mention anywhere of breathing problems), the website promises a “headache-free, preservative-free” wine drinking experience if you simply add a 3ml sachet of this “safe & natural product that is used by winemakers the world over” to your bottle of wine.

And what is this “safe & natural product”? Why, hydrogen peroxide (H₂O₂), yes, indeed, the same stuff used in varying concentrations to bleach hair, clean electronic components and provide oxygen for rocket fuel.

Even food grade H₂O₂ (used in the production of egg- and cheese-containing products, for example), is extremely dangerous, potentially fatal, if not heavily diluted (we’re talking symptoms like bleeding in the upper gastrointestinal tract and respiratory arrest). It is certainly no “safer” than SO₂, just as SO₂ is no more dangerous (for most people) than any of the other 14 “restricted substances” permitted in wine that (unlike SO₂) do not require a warning on wine bottles – substances including lead, mercury and even arsenic!

So the website’s claim that “most winemakers use Hydrogen Peroxide freely in the winery as a Sulphur Removal tool in bulk wines” is dubious – nobody should be messing around “freely” with any chemical additive!

I accept that this product contains “a measured, dilute level of food grade Hydrogen Peroxide” and I certainly don’t dispute the chemistry – the oxygen in the H₂O₂ will indeed react with some of the sulphur in the SO₂, effectively neutralising some of it.

But how much? The website claims “between 50% and 80% of free Sulphur Dioxide in an average 750ml bottle of wine”. In other words, leaving 30% to 50% of it behind.

I suspect that’s still too much of a risk for the truly intolerant to take.

Besides, what is “average” given that a bottle of wine has to carry the “contains sulphites” warning whether it contains 11mg/l or 160mg/l (the basic upper limit imposed by South African regulations, with up to 200mg/l permitted for off-dry wines and a whopping 300mg/l for dessert wines)? Bubbly, on the other hand, typically gets a much smaller dose of SO₂ than white wine because it contains another preservative: carbon dioxide.

Yet this product takes a one-size-fits-all approach: Just add 1 sachet … to a bottle of wine, champagne etc. Or treat a standard 150ml glass with 2 sprays, from our handy spray bottle. Swirl & enjoy!”

What if you’ve been poured a generous Burgundy glassful rather than 150ml? Do you simply guesstimate another spray or three? (Why not, after all, if this is such a “safe & natural” product?)

It all seems a bit random and frankly opportunistic – particularly when you consider 20 sachets will set you back R500, which works out at R25 per bottle of wine! (You can also buy in bulk: R1700 for 100 sachets…)

In my opinion, this “headache preventative” isn’t aimed at people suffering from genuine SO₂ intolerance at all (I doubt they’d take the risk), but is taking advantage of a widespread misunderstanding of sulphites.

At the very least, nobody should be blaming SO₂ for “morning to forget” headaches, or regarding H₂O₂ as a hangover cure. If you believe your headaches after drinking wine are caused by sulphites, try eating dried fruit which can contain up to 2000 parts per million compared to the maximum basic 160ppm permitted in wine.

NOTE: There are good reasons for modern winemakers to reduce their use of SO₂. Sometimes there are also good reasons to oxygenate a wine (and if it reduces SO₂ levels at the same time, maybe that’s a plus). But you don’t need a chemical additive to do it – see here, for example.

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