Sulfite sensitivity is a serious health consideration that should be diagnosed and addressed by a certified health practitioner. If you believe that you have a sulfite sensitivity, the very first thing you should do is talk to your doctor. He or she can refer you to an allergist for diagnosis and preventive advice.
Approximately 1 in 100 individuals have a sulfite sensitivity. Individuals with asthma or an allergy to aspirin are particularly at risk. When exposed to sulfites, those with a sensitivity can experience a variety of symptoms: flushing of the face or skin, headache, or, in severe cases, hives and/or difficulty breathing.
Most people who have a sulfite sensitivity and don't have asthma will become flushed or develop a headache after drinking red wine. Red wine contains the highest concentration of sulfites, which, in addition to being used as a preservative in some foods, are a natural byproduct of the fermentation process.
If you ever experience hives or difficulty breathing after drinking wine, you are experiencing an anaphylactic reaction, which is very serious. Such a reaction should always be reported to a doctor for treatment. Your doctor or allergist will most likely prescribe an epinephrine injector -- EpiPen being the most commonly prescribed brand -- and instruct you in its use. A severe anaphylactic reaction can be lethal, and it is important to be prepared.
Sulfite sensitivity also tends to increase with continued exposure to sulfites. For this reason, if you have a mild reaction but notice that you eventually begin developing more severe symptoms, you should see your doctor.
Not long ago it used to be common practice to spray vegetables for common consumption -- such as at salad bars -- with sulfites to preserve their color. Today this is less common, but some individuals with intense sulfite sensitivity avoid salad bars and vegetables that might be treated with sulfites.
One of the most frustrating aspects of sulfite sensitivity can be the experimentation involved in determining which products are safe and which are not. Many products sold in the US and many more sold overseas are not labeled for sulfite content, so even though they appear to be safe, they may not be. Because it is not federally required for manufacturers to report sulfite content below a certain amount, many manufacturers do not list it on their labels.
All wines contain sulfites. Some wines are branded "sulfite-free" -- often organics bear this label -- which will be of use to someone with a very mild sulfite sensitivity, but as sulfites are a natural part of the grape fermentation process, no wine can be 100% sulfite free. However, if you can drink some wines and not others, look for paler wines; white wine contains fewer sulfites than red wine does.
This "coloration" test makes a good rule of thumb for other alcoholic beverages as well. Because sulfites are commonly used to preserve color, darker alcohols will have a higher tendency to cause a sulfite reaction in those with high sensitivity than clear or pale ones. However, colorless alcohol is not always safe, and care should always be taken when sampling an untried beverage. Many mixers also contain sulfites for color and flavor preservation.
With sulfite sensitivity, caution is always the rule. While it can be frustrating to navigate the wide array of alcoholic beverages available on the market, or to turn down a drink at a social event, remember that sulfite sensitivity can be very serious, and always be prepared.