Headaches, histamines and GM yeast [ML01]

Hennie van Vuuren (right) suffers headaches after drinking young red wine. As a result, the professor in Biotechnology at the University of British Columbia has spent a large part of his professional life researching why. His solution: ML01, a genetically modified yeast.

It’s a coincidence that as Mark Bittman laments the lack of labeling of GM foods at nytimes.com, a story making the rounds in the Canadian press touts a “new” strain of genetically modified yeast for wines called ML01. According to the Vancouver Sun story by Randy Shore, ML01 is so prevalent that “If you drink red wine from the United States or Canada, there’s a good chance you’ve tried ML01 wine already.” You wouldn’t know about it because of the lack of labeling requirement.

I corresponded with Hendrik van Vuuren to learn more. He says that it took him 15 years to develop ML01 before he released it commercially in June 2003. He undertook the research at Stellenbosch University as well as the University of Guelph, and at UBC in Vancouver; the three institutions share in license royalties from the sale of the yeast. He said that he will sell about 2,000 kgs of yeast this year, available only in commercial-sized quantities. Asked to describe how much wine this would make, he replied that it can make “approximately 100,000 liters of wine, not enough wine for one fair sized city in Canada!” He added, “It is a complete over statement that wine produced with our yeast is prevalent in US and Canadian wines.” ML01 is currently approved in the US, Canada, and South Africa; van Vuuren says he is applying for approval in the EU.

Histamines are one of 20 biogenic amines produced during winemaking, according to van Vuuren, particularly during the conversion of strong malic acid to softer, lactic acid of (mostly red) wines known as malolactic fermentation. ML01 eliminates the need for a malolactic fermentation. Here’s how van Vuuren described the amines in an email:

The presence of biogenic amines in wine can be of great concern for consumers since these compounds produce undesirable physiological effects in susceptible individuals, including myself. Histamine is known to cause headaches and other allergenic symptoms such as, hypotension, edema, palpitations, flushing, diarrhoea, and vomiting. Tyramine and phenylethylamine have been associated with migraines and hypertension. Biogenic amines are also linked to carcinogenesis. Filtered wine made with ML01 does not contain any yeast.

However, as we have discussed before, whether amines in wine cause allergic reactions remains open for debate. One clinical study found no correlation between the two. The Oxford Companion to Wine writes that histamine “was once thought the cause of some people’s allergy to red wine [but] improved methods of wine analysis have demonstrated that the amounts of histamine in wine are at least an order of magnitude below that required to cause an allergic reaction in the majority of people.” Asked twice via email if he could point me to a study that found a correlation between amines in food and allergies, van Vuuren did not reply.

Amines also appear in many foods, including nuts, cheese, cured meats and dark chocolate.

Because van Vuuren suffers severe headaches from red wine, I asked him what’s a red wine that he enjoys. Surprisingly, he rattled off a few: “I love the 1953 Ch. Margaux, 1961 Lafite, 1978 Guigal La Mouline, and the 1989 Haut Brion.” When I pointed out that these were not made with ML01, thus loaded with amines, he responded, “Fortunately I don’t get headaches from well-aged wines – I believe bioamines are not stable over such a long period of storage.”

So although there remains much to disentangle between cause and effect for red wine headaches, there’s one solution beyond abstaining that even van Vuuren endorses: take two decades (in the cellar), and call me in the morning (after).

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15 Responses to “Headaches, histamines and GM yeast [ML01]”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Wine Lover +, Dr Vino, Joel Wilcox, CvilleUnCorked, Anders Åberg and others. Anders Åberg said: RT @drvino: What's the solution for red wine headaches? One biotechnologist banks on genetically modified yeasts. http://bit.ly/h48EgH […]

  2. I am considering a new t-shirt for my team to wear at tastings to help explain wine headaches to 97% of the populations. It reads:

    You are not allergic to sulfites, you’re just hungover.

  3. It’s a very interesting article, but Damien it’s right too, it could be a hangover

  4. I agree, good article – nice to see. As a wine industry professional, it gets very tiring to explain to people that it’s the histamines, not the sulfites that are affecting them. I’ve settled on, “If it’s the sulfites, we’ll know in a couple of hours – when you’re dead.”

  5. Years and year ago when I didn’t drink anything alcoholic much at all except to be polite, I always got wicked migraines when I drank red wines. After a while I was okay if I went easy. As it turned out it was hormones in my case. I finaly figured that out when I was going through “the change” and it started to happen again — wicked, disabling migraines where I could hardly see or wouldn’t have been able to defend myself against anyone or anything. Fortunately having survived that, I’m just fine now and red is very much my favorite, even more than champagne.

  6. P.S. What’s the relationship to female hormones?

  7. I have heard of genetically modified corn, but I didn’t know that there were any genetically modified grapes yet. One way to get around the fact that genetically modified foods don’t have to be labeled as such is to buy organic wine. Organic foods that are certified as “USDA Organic” cannot have any genetically modified ingredients, as far as I know.

  8. Thanks for this useful articel! And in addition: The South African authorities have rejected the commercialisation of ML01 yeast in 2007 due to trade and image risks of the SA wine industry
    Ref.: Department of Agriculture. Record of the proceedings of the meeting of the Executive Council under GMO Act, 1997 held on 18 September 2007. http://www.nda.agric.za/docs/geneticresources/ECMinutes_180907.pdf

  9. “ML01 eliminates the need for a malolactic fermentation.” Does this mean you get the equivalent of malolactic fermentation–that is, conversion of malic to lactic acid, all in the primary? Or does it mean there’s less acidity at the end of primary fermentation? Or what?

  10. Interesting article. I hadn’t heard that there was a relationship between red wine and migraines until a Facebook fan (who suffers red wine-induced migraines) asked about it recently. I knew that histamines found in the skin of red wines were known to produce allergic reactions in many people, but was not sure if this bore any relevancy.

    I’ll be sure to pass on the findings.


    Paul Kalemkiarian
    President, Wine of the Month Club

  11. […] in the wine blogosphere is talking about additives at the moment, from Dr.Vino to Catavino to Jamie Goode and overall it seems the issues are same: no one really likes the idea […]

  12. […] Zur Zeit ist sie für uns gar kein Thema: ML01 ist nur in Kanada und den USA zugelassen. Diese Hefe wandelt nicht nur Zucker zu Alkohol um, sondern auch gleichzeitig Äpfelsäure zu Milchsäure. Sie wird kommerziell bereits seit 2003 verwendet. In diesem Sinne ist sie auch schon ein alter Hut. Als die Gentechnik-Diskussion aufkam, hat Lucian Haas in der Berliner Zeitung  einen allgemeinverständlichen Artikel zu ML01 geschrieben. Das war 2006. Auch in den Weinblogs drehte ML01 ihre Runden […]

  13. The reason studies would not be able to show a relationship between amines and allergies is because it could actually be a histamine intolerance, not an allergy, although the symptoms would be the same. Allergy tests measure blood levels of IgE antibodies, which would not be present in a histamine intolerance. If your body does not produce enough of the enzyme Diamine Oxidase, you would not be able to rid yourself of the histamines fast enough, would reach toxic levels, and experience symptoms, such as headaches.

  14. […] can offer in quality and efficiency improvement. So think about the genetics of your food (and likely your adult beverages) as you also consider family history over the […]

  15. We actually found a natural yeast that does malolactic fermentation with the primary fermentation, no need for GM…


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