CONTAINS SULFITES: meant to frighten rather than inform

Have you ever wondered why a bottle of wine states “CONTAINS SULFITES” on the label while other foods that have sulfur get no such warning?

In A History of Wine In America, Volume 2, Thomas Pinney recaps some of the maneuvering from the 1980s that led to this warning. A group tried to have ingredients listed on wine labels as early as 1972. After over a decade of ping-ponging between agencies, proposals getting rebuffed from the industry, and ultimately a legal challenge that succeeded in striking it down, ingredient labeling was off the table.

But the forces of “neoprohibitionism” had started gathering steam and in Senator Strom Thurmond, they found their man. This time, Pinney writes, “their goal was not to inform but to frighten.” Initial efforts to get a government warning were stymied, but they scored a victory in getting “CONTAINS SULFITES” to appear on labels starting in 1987. The following year, the government warning language on labels also passed and went into effect. While a small portion of the population is allergic to sulfites, an allergist once told me that those who are allergic generally have preconditions, such as asthma. Further, the reactions are most often severe and may include anaphylaxis (note: they don’t cause headaches).

So if you’ve ever wondered why dried fruits that have higher levels of sulfur than wine contain no government warning, know you know why. First, they’re regulated by different agencies (TTB vs FDA). Second, there’s no anti-dried fruit lobby.

As the topic of ingredient labeling for wine is making the rounds again, its worth bearing in mind that the track record of “contains sulfites” verbiage on labels has raised more questions than it has answered and perhaps, as its original proponents intended, scared more people away from wine than it has protected asthamatics.

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22 Responses to “CONTAINS SULFITES: meant to frighten rather than inform”

  1. […] to quote one paragraph: So if you’ve ever wondered why dried fruits that have higher levels of sulfur than wine contain no government warning, know you know why. First, they’re regulated by different agencies (TTB vs FDA). Second, there’s no anti-dried fruit lobby. Share this:FacebookTwitterLinkedInEmailLike this:LikeOne blogger likes this. Tags biodynamic, biogenic amines, labels, living wine, natural wine, organic Categories Methods of wine making […]

  2. If they start disclosing all nutrients, then sulfites would be just another item low on the list. Would there be room on the label for a disclaimer? The print is going to be getting tiny. Each bottle will have to come with reading glasses.

  3. No member of the Homo sapiens species is *allergic* to sulfites. Some may have a sensitivity to it. But this is trigeminal nerve irritation. And that is an allergy like a taco is Chinese.

  4. BTw Heinz makes a very good and very stable wine without sulfites:

  5. Good information…While its good to have labeling on all things, I think most times it misses the point. Too much attention is brought to things that don’t matter, and the things that do get left off the label. Maybe more so with food than wine…but the last thing you need is to hear one more person say they can’t drink wine because it contains sulfates…

  6. Sending this on to a few people that have always claimed their avoidance of wine was due to the headaches they get from the sulphites causing an allergic response. Good Info!

  7. I have a number of friends who think red wine gives them headaches. They know that I am a red wine drinker and have asked me, why, on a number of occasions, don’t I get headaches. After quizzing them, I have found out they have done things like consuming large quantities of Irish Whiskey and beer first. And then blamed it on the wine. Or they drink some god-awful swill that they have turned into sangria. It’s hard to answer them with something that doesn’t resemble “You can’t fix stupid”.
    I had asthma when I was younger, it went away when I quit smoking. (No I didn’t smoke when I was five) But I got asthma attacks when I drank Germany wines, most notably May Wines.
    May cure was to quit drinking German wines and the problem never happened again. Don’t know what to blame it on but it was real.

  8. Great article, I am goimg to share it with my wine friends!

  9. Quizicat: this is a bit esoteric, but some have implicated biogenic amines as the causes of red wine headaches. Sometimes malolactic conversion can be accompanied by the production of biogenic amines. This seems to depend on strain of bacteria used, chemical composition of wine and the time in the whole process that ML bacteria are introduced. Since reds tend to go through MLF more often and have a larger amount of acids converted, it stands to reason that more biogenic amines may be produced. Additionally, there is some evidence that oak-derived compounds may be vasoactive and induce headaches.

  10. Quizicat. Another FYI:

    Sweet woodruff used in May Wines can cause headaches:

  11. […] Ever wonder why every bottle of wine states “CONTAINS SULFITES” on the label? Tyler Colman has the answer. […]

  12. […] Lien vers un article ou vous ferez la connaissance du sénateur américain néoprohibitionniste Strom Thurmond et qui qui pourra vous éclairer… […]

  13. […] I came across an interesting post that appeared yesterday on Dr. Vino (Tyler Colman’s excellent wine blog) regarding the […]

  14. Good post and informative! I think it’s a great disservice to consumers that wine is exempt from labeling requirements like all other food and drink products. I believe that there is small movement among winemakers to voluntarily publish the ingredients (notably Randall Grahm, in the USA, and few, including myself here in Europe). There are some ingredients and substances added to wine that are a lot worse than sulfites!!!

  15. I hear that sulfites will steal your children in the middle of the night… We must protect ourselves.

  16. Huh, I didn’t know that – learn something new every day.

    I nominated you for the Inspiring Bloggers Award by the way:

  17. Ich liebe die Weine von Salento “Vino del salento” 😀

  18. […] […]

  19. I believe the statistic is less than 2% of the world population have any allergy to sulfites. And of that 2%, less than 25% of them (or, 0.5% of the world population if my math doesn’t suck) has severe reactions.

    People are afraid of sulfites (sulphites) and don’t really know why.

  20. […] “Contains sulfites” meant to frighten rather than inform […]

  21. […] October 17, 2012 I came across an interesting post that appeared yesterday on Dr. Vino (Tyler Colman’s excellent wine blog) regarding the […]

  22. […] the US. It’s been that way since 1987, when the phrase “contains sulfites” was legally mandated to appear on wine labels. Even my righteous bought-in-Whole-Foods Agriculture Biologique Bordeaux […]


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