Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Wine Headaches: Has the Culprit Emerged?

Wine headaches have received a lot of media coverage lately, thanks in part to a couple of commercial products that claim to remove sulfites from a glass or bottle of wine. In his June 28th story for Wired, ‘Wine Sulfites are Fine, But Here’s How to Remove Them Anyway,’ Christopher Null likened the hot button issue of sulfites in wine to that of gluten in food. As he predicted, many readers savagely took him to task.

From another corner of the world, University of Otago PhD-candidate Erica Syzmanski wrote about a small preliminary study in ‘New research: Wine allergies exist. You probably don’t have them.’ on her probing wine science blog, The Wineoscope.

In my conference preview article this week for Wine, Wit, and Wisdom, the official blog of the Society of Wine Educators, ‘Wine Headaches: Is Malo the Culprit?’ I discussed a few issues regarding biogenic amines such as histamine and tyramine.

Essential to human health in small amounts, biogenic amines are present in wine as well as other beverages such as beer, cider and a variety of fermented and aged foods, including soy products, cheese, fish sauces and processed meats.

However, whether due to genetics, other medical conditions or medications, some people can’t process some biogenic amines as quickly or as completely as needed before reactions ensue, from headaches and rashes to more serious effects on the heart, lungs and digestive tract.

Although the link between wine drinking and headaches has been recognized since antiquity, surprisingly little well-controlled research has been performed to sort out wine headaches and intolerances. One reason is the barriers to performing experiments on humans that involve alcohol. Many studies are look-back trials known as observational or retrospective studies, which often involve questionnaires and self-reporting, two methods that may have serious flaws.

Curiously, most of the research on wine-related intolerances and headaches, including their relation to vitiviniculture, has come from abroad. Indeed, some of the most exciting research has come from Spain, Italy, South Africa and even China. With its status as the largest wine-consuming nation by volume, the US stands poised to advance the science of wine intolerances. Perhaps our academic enology centers will also begin to take a closer look at the reasons and remedies for such reactions, which are estimated to affect up to 40% or more of certain populations.

Other nations have already begun to act. European and other global organizations including the FAO, WHO, the European Food Safety Authority and the International Organisation of Wine and Vine (OIV) are pushing forward to study the health issues associated with biogenic amine-rich foods and beverages, including wine and beer. Their actions have included recommendations regarding viticulture and winemaking itself, including the use of malolactic bacteria that are less likely or incapable of contributing to biogenic amine formation in the finished wine.

Today’s wine labels offer few clues for consumers seeking headache-free wine enjoyment. Given the range of the many factors that can affect a wine’s biogenic amine content – including viticulture, terroir, climate, vintage and winemaking decisions besides malolactic fermention such as aging, storage and fining – we may not be able to accurately predict the headache- or wine reaction-provoking potential of a given bottle of wine anytime soon. Notwithstanding, in another post, we’ll look at the types of wines that could be less likely to provoke reactions in individuals who are sensitive to biogenic amines.

Scoot over to Wine, Wit, and Wisdom, the official blog of the Society of Wine Educators to read more about the wine headache conundrum.

Are you able to enjoy some types of wines but not others fairly consistently? Let us know in the Comments section if you associate certain types of wines with the ability to provoke headache, migraine or other bothersome symptoms you’ve experienced.

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