The problem here is one of terminology.
An altered reactivity to an antigen ("substances that are recognized by the Immune System and induce an immune reaction"²), which can result in pathologic reactions upon subsequent exposure to that particular antigen.
One can have a reaction to the chemical “sulfites,” but not an allergy, despite the fact that the word “allergy” is used to describe the reaction all the time. (After all, it is a term that all lay-people will understand.)
Allergies and Sulfite Sensitivity³
Sulfites are a group of sulfur-based compounds that may occur naturally or may be added to food as an enhancer and preservative. The FDA estimates that one out of 100 people is sensitive to the compounds. A person can develop sensitivity to sulfites at any time in life, and the trigger for the sensitivity is unknown. For a person who is sensitive to sulfites, a reaction can be mild or life threatening.
In 1986, the FDA banned the use of sulfites on fruits and vegetables that are eaten raw, such as lettuce or apples. Regulations also require manufacturers who use sulfites in their processed products to list the compounds on their product labels.
Although sulfites are no longer used on most fresh foods, they still can be found in a variety of cooked and processed foods. They also occur naturally in the process of making wine and beer. (Emphasis added.)
Avoiding foods that contain or are likely to contain sulfites is the only way to prevent a reaction. If you are sensitive to sulfites, be sure to read the labels on all food items. When eating out, ask the chef or server if sulfites are used or added to food before or during preparation.
Sulfites are found in sparkling wines just as they are found in still wines. They occur naturally in all wines, period! There is NO SCIENTIFIC REASON why someone who has a sensitivity to sulfites – which is a very real, and (in some people) a potentially life-threatening problem! – could freely consume sparkling wines (including Champagne), but not table wines.
Indeed, because sulfites are a naturally occurring by-product of fermentation, wines cannot be labeled as “sulfite free.” They can be labeled as “No Sulfites Added,” but not as having no sulfites whatsoever.
Finally, let me urge ANYONE wanting to know more about this very important subject to do the research themselves. The following is excerpted from an article written by Professor Andrew L. Waterhouse, Ph.D., a faculty member in the Viticulture & Enology Department at the University of California, Davis:
(Beginning paragraphs omitted)
The medical literature has virtually no reports on sulfites inducing headache. There are many studies of sulfites and asthmatic responses, and a few of these address sulfites in wine. A few studies from Australia shows that even with extremely sensitive people, there is only an asthmatic response in a small number of sensitive subjects (4 out of 24) for a single drink (150 ml) at extremely high sulfite levels-300 mg/liter or 45 mg. No effects were seen at lower levels, such as 150 mg/liter, or with several increasing doses up to 750 mg/liter! See H Valley and PJ Thompson, Role of sulfite additives in wine induced asthma: single dose and cumulative dose studies, Thorax 56:763-769 (2001). Link
There are many erroneous ideas about sulfites, so to put the record straight:
- All wines contain sulfites. Yeast naturally produce sulfites during fermentation so there is only a rare wine which contains none.
- The US requires a “sulfite” warning label and Australia requires a label indicating “preservative 220,” but nearly all winemakers add sulfites, including those in France, Italy, Spain, Australia, Chile, etc etc. So, the wine you drink in foreign countries contains sulfites, but you just are not being warned about it when purchased abroad. Survey studies show that European wines contain an average of 80 mg/L sulfites just as in the US.
- There are a few (very few) winemakers who make wines without adding sulfites. In the US, organic wine must be made without added sulfites. These are unusual because the wine is very perishable and often have unusual aromas from the aldehydes that are normally bound and rended aroma-less by the sulftes. In Europe organic wines are call bio- but sulfites are allowed in production, but not in those exported to the US. The term “natural” winemaking is used in Europe for no-sulfite-added wines. Look for these wines at natural food stores.
- There is no medical research data showing that sulfites cause headaches! There is something in red wine that causes headaches, but the cause has not yet been discovered. Refer to the Bakalinsky article above. To avoid these common headaches, try drinking less wine, and drink with food. If you think sulfites are causing your headache, try eating some orange-colored dried apricots, and let me know if that induces a headache. If not, sulftes are not the likely culprit. These bright colored dried fruits typically have 2000 mg/kg sulfites, so a two ounce serving (56 gm) should contain about 112 mg sulfites. It is certainly possible that sulfites cause headaches, but as noted above, there is no data available. Feel free to send a memo to the NIH suggesting this be the target of future research so the question can be addressed.
(Article continues at length)
AGAIN, sensitivity to sulfites can be a serious, even life-threatening, medical issue for a few people, but there is also a lot of misinformation out there.
¹ Source: http://www.online-medical-dictionary.org/definitions-a/allergy.html
² Source: http://www.online-medical-dictionary.org/definitions-a/antigen.html
³ Source: http://www.webmd.com/allergies/guide/sulfite-sensitivity
⁴ Source: http://waterhouse.ucdavis.edu/whats-in-wine/sulfites-in-wine