Published on October 21, 2021
Last updated October 29, 2021
By Elva Ramirez
When a glass of wine can lead to a headache, sharing a bottle at dinner starts to feel like a game of roulette. The rules never feel simple, either: does a second glass mean you’ll be in more pain, or do you accept that you’re already along for the ride, so what’s another glass? What is it in wine that causes headaches anyway, and how can it be avoided?
Even the most ardent wine lovers may not know this dirty little industry secret: many bottles contain additives, and they aren’t always disclosed on the label. If you ever drink red wine and notice that your teeth are stained afterward, it’s probably because of an additive called Mega Purple—a colorant that a lot of wineries use to “color correct” their wines and cover up vegetal flavors.
It’s true: more than 70 different additives, ranging from ammonia to sulfur, can be legally added to wine in the U.S.
There’s no regulation requiring them to be labeled on your bottle, so chances are, you don’t even know they’re there. “As a consumer, you think you’re getting this bottle of wine,” says Dr. Will Cole, IFCMP, DNM, DC, a leading functional medicine expert. “It’s wine, what else could it be?”
But the sheer number of additives means there’s a lot of variables for people who have food sensitivities, Cole notes, resulting in a variety of different symptoms that may arise after drinking wine. Dr. Cole specializes in treating patients with chronic diseases, such as thyroid and auto-immune conditions, hormonal imbalances, and digestive issues, so every day he sees the rising impact that additives, preservatives, and toxins have on his patients.
“A lot of domestic wines aren’t tested for mold,” Dr. Cole says, explaining that wine is among the goods most likely to be contaminated with mold or mold toxins, which some people are sensitive to. “For people who are getting headaches, oftentimes there can be a histamine component to it. Mold toxins can drive more histamine releases in the body. It can be too much for a person’s system.”
The most common culprits, however, are added sugars and sweeteners. Many wines have higher levels of sugar added to even out the wine’s tart notes, or to create a softer palate — and overly sweet wines can lead to next-day headaches.
A dry wine that’s lower in sugar (or has no added sugars) can help mitigate next-day pain, Dr. Cole notes. The same thinking applies to wines that are lower in alcoholic content.
A lot of producers also use an ingredient called gum arabic to give wine more body. It makes the wine feel richer when you drink it, but this additive may also be the culprit behind your headache the next day.
That’s where natural wines come in.
“Natural wines” have been gaining buzz among wine drinkers in the last few years — largely for what they don’t do. Winemakers behind natural wines, such as Dry Farm Wines, can advise consumers about each wine’s lack of additives and modifiers, organic farming practices, and lab-testing protocol. “What I like about Dry Farm Wines is that they lab test every bottle through a third-party lab for things like mold,” Dr. Cole says.
Natural wines tend to be produced by smaller, family-owned estates, and are typically organic or biodynamic. The concept of natural winemaking goes back to the historic root of winemaking: a more pure example of terroir (the expression of the soil and the character of the climate combined with the style of the grapes) can be produced without relying on industrial additives. Because these winemakers don’t believe in additives, the natural wines they produce are added-sugar-free, lower in alcohol (less than 12.5%), and low in sulfites.
Many wine drinkers are curious about sulfites, which appear on wine labels without much explanation. All wines will have some amount of sulfites present, because yeast naturally produces sulfites during the fermentation process. Added sulfites (also known as sulfur dioxide) can act as a food preservative to keep wine from spoiling or smelling bad, can keep bacterial growth at bay, and they can also keep the wine from oxidizing. (Fun fact: Sulfites are also found in a majority of processed and frozen foods.) The difference is that natural wines will have significantly lower levels of sulfites than their commercial counterparts, and only the naturally-occurring variety.
It’s important to be upfront: alcohol is not a health food. That said, it can also be delicious, celebratory, and pair beautifully with a lovely meal — and it’s fine to enjoy in moderation. If the kind of wine you’ve been drinking has been giving you a headache (or you’re a health-focused individual who wants to avoid additives) it’s a good idea to pay attention to the kind of wine you want to drink.
“I have to be pragmatic with my patients,” Dr. Cole says. “I know they will have some alcohol to some degree in their lives, so let’s get the best source if you’re going to drink. That’s a low-alcohol, sugar free, organic, biodynamic wine.”
Elva Ramirez is the author of Zero Proof: 90 Non-Alcoholic Recipes for Mindful Drinking, a look at the growing non-alcoholic cocktail movement. Follow her @zero_proof_cocktails on Instagram.