Sulfites of wine

Sulfites, also known as sulfur dioxide (SO2) are preservatives that have been used in winemaking for a long time, as they help preserve it, delaying the natural oxidation of wine and the appearance of bacteria. But what are sulfites?

Sulfites in food are more common than it seems, since they are a very active preservative, which usually appears in preserves in the form of sulfurous acid (E220), sodium sulfite (E221), sodium disulfite (E223) or calcium sulphite (E25).

However, sulfites can also appear naturally in some foods, especially those that go through a natural fermentation process. During fermentation, bacteria oxidize the sulfur naturally contained in some foods, such as some sweet fruits – peaches or plums – ginger or cabbage, which are fermented to make sauerkraut. Sulphites in wine are, to some extent, a natural occurrence, as they are a by-product generated by yeast during fermentation.

The amount of sulphites in wine, even those to which they are added artificially, is really low. The WHO (World Health Organization) itself has indicated that these additives are safe for consumption. However, the laws of wine-producing countries limit the use of sulfites in wine to prevent users from developing allergies to wine or health problems resulting from the intake of these additives and require that it contain the label “contains sulfites” as long as it contains them.

Many wineries have opted for the production of organic wine, suitable for consumption by all types of users and from a form of agriculture without chemicals. Wines without sulphites or with a really low quantity are also produced, thanks to the higher quality of these grapes.

Are sulfites bad for health?

Sulfur dioxide and sulfites such as sulfur dioxide are toxic substances for human consumption. Sulfur is a mineral of volcanic origin, so it is dangerous for consumption. However, as components of wine, sulfites are so low in concentration that they pose no real health hazard.

However, the large wineries have adopted a policy of making safe and organic products, as healthy as possible for consumption, which is why many have decided to completely eliminate their use, by using other healthier preservatives or with the application of new scientific techniques used in winemaking.

Sulphites and side effects on the body

According to the World Health Organization, the Acceptable Daily Dose (DDA) of sulfites is between 0.35 to 1.50 mg/day per kg of consumer weight. As an average value, the WHO indicates that 0.7 mg/day per kilogram of weight should not be exceeded. 

Various organizations have conducted studies on the effects of sulfites on the body of humans and animals, with which they have been able to measure certain toxicity parameters, as well as a tendency to develop allergy to sulfites, as well as other negative effects.

In adults —from the age of 18—, the first symptoms of intoxication are seen only when the doses of sulfites ingested are very high, from 4 grams per kilogram ingested at one time, although in people who are especially sensitive or allergic, the effects will begin to be noticed at lower amounts. The effects of intoxication are shown as gastric irritation, vomiting and a feeling of continuous nausea. Allergies to sulfites also commonly appear in people with asthma disorders.

How many glasses of wine are toxic?

The level of toxicity in the intake of sulfites in adults, weighing between 60 and 80 kg, is between 42 and 56 mg per day. This means that, in the doses approved by current legislation, more than half a bottle of wine should be consumed daily continuously for the amount of sulphites consumed to be toxic. However, consumption of more than 3 glasses of wine per day could begin to generate high levels of toxicity.

The toxicity of sulfites in the human body is due to the fact that they destroy vitamin B1. One way to avoid the toxicity of sulfites would be to consume foods with a high content of Thiamin (vitamin B1) such as pork, cheese, mussels, lentils or fish.

Do organic wines have sulfites?

The answer is yes. Sulphite-free wines and organic wines also contain sulphites, although in this case they are natural sulphites. In these wines, they are present in the grape and are released during fermentation, their concentration is so low that it is negligible for manufacturers, so these wines can continue to display the “Sulphite Free” label. 

Ecological, organic and natural wines cannot be completely free of sulphites or preservatives such as potassium sulphite, since the natural yeasts of the grape, at the beginning of the alcoholic fermentation process of the must, are capable of producing up to 100 mg of sulphites (sulfur dioxide) per liter.

As it is impossible to get rid of that part of sulphites, the regulations of the European Community on Organic Wines allow the use of sulfur dioxide as an additive, although its concentration in these wines is much lower than that found in industrial or traditional wines..

Now that you know what sulfites are in wine and how they affect your health, you can now enjoy a glass of good broth without fear of toxicity. And, if you prefer, you can always opt for a sulphite-free organic wine.

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