Why wine makes your face go red
Updated: Jun 4, 2021
Do you ever suffer from a red face after a glass of red or white wine? Ever wondered if there is something in red or white wine that does not agree with you?
You are not alone- so many find they get very flushed and can feel quite unwell after having a glass of red or white wine.
You could be reacting to SULPHITES in the wine or HISTAMINES (or both!).
SULPHITES in wine
Sulphites are used in wine to prevent oxidation and keep wine fresh - in fact sulphite has been long used from as way back as the Greeks and Romans who knew the value of sulphites.
Sulphites are added to wine, but are also produced naturally as part of the wine making process so getting truly sulphite free wine is difficult, even if the wine is organic and said to have no added sulphites. It will still have small amounts or a trace of sulphites.
Red wine tends to have less sulphites than white wine, as red wine contains tannins which act as antioxidants and help preserve the wine.
The less sweet/drier white wines (more acidic) also tend to have lower sulphites than the sweeter wines, including the sticky wines.
Cask wine tends to be higher in sulphites.
Some people find they can use sulphite removers, which can be added to wine and neutralise the sulphites in the wine. Some people swear by it- try it yourself and see! Often sold at large wine stores.
Sulphites have been reported to cause not only face flushing but a variety of other symptoms:
stomach pain and diarrhoea
swelling of the face, throat and tongue
allergic rhinitis (hay fever)
...but is mostly known for provoking asthma reactions such as wheezing, chest tightness and coughing.
Wheezing is the most common reaction. Reactions can be mild all the way through to the more rare life threatening anaphylaxis.
The World Health Organisation (1999) estimated 20-30% of asthmatic children were sensitive to sulphites, which is quite astounding. Many people with asthma may not realise that they are sensitive to sulphites as as only a few have immediate reactions.
Sulphites may increase sensitivity to pre-existing triggers so you are more likely to react to the cold air or exercising or getting a cold.
Luckily wine is not kids' food.
If you react to sulphites in wine, you potentially will also react to sulphites added to foods.
Other Foods that Contain Sulphites
In Australia, under the Food Standards Code, sulphites in a food must be printed on the label if amounts are more than 10 parts per million (= 10 mg per kg of food). So you will see the word sulphite on the label (CONTAINS SULPHITES) or in the ingredient list as "sulphite" or its code number (220 - 228).
If you think you may be sulphite sensitive, check out the sulphite numbers when buying any foods, and be wary of prawns which are always sprayed with sulphites.
See the box below which shows all the sulphite preservatives and their code numbers.
If there is less than 10 parts per million of sulphite in the food then there will usually be nothing on the label. It is thought that most sulphite sensitive people will not react to these levels, although anecdotal information suggests that some people can be extra sensitive either to these levels individually or after a build up.
Histamines in Wine
Another component in wines known to cause a range of symptoms including flushing is histamines.
Histamines are one of many amines which are found across many different foods, and in susceptible people can cause a crazy set of symptoms. These amines occur from the breakdown of proteins, and can be bioactive in the body after being digested and absorbed from the food and drink we consume.
Histamines are much higher in red wine and correlates with people often having more issues with red over white wine.
If histamines are your issue then you may also react to amines in other foods such as chocolate, cheese, slow cooked meats, pork, very ripe bananas, over browned meats and foods such as tomatoes and spinach and many more foods which contain not only amines but are very high in salicylates as well.
Gin, Whiskey and Vodka
If you find you react to wines, give these drinks a go- when unflavoured, they rarely cause the issues you see with wines, unless of course you imbibe a little too much!
Updated September 2019
REFERENCES 1. ASCIA Sulfite Sensitivity. 2014. Retrieved from: https://www.allergy.org.au/patients/product-allergy/sulfite-allergy. Retrieved on 2017-07-05. 2. Swain A, Soutter V, Loblay R. RPAH Food Intolerance Handbook Volume II: Challenges, liberalising & management. Allergy Unit, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital 2016. 3. Dengate S. Sulphites 220-228. Food Intolerance Network. 2013-Dec. Retrieved from: https://fedup.com.au/factsheets/additive-and-natural-chemical-factsheets/220-228-sulphite-preservatives. Retrieved on 2017-07-05. 4. Food Standards Australia New Zealand. 2016- June. Retrieved from: http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumer/additives/sulphite/Pages/default.aspx. Retrieved on 2017-07-05. 5. Valley H & Misso N. Adverse reactions to sulphite additives. Gastroenterol Hepatol Bed bench. 2012; 5(1): 16–23. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4017440/. Retrieved on 2017-07-05. 6. Herron M. Preservatives in wine and beer. Choice. 2016-04-26. Retrieved from: https://www.choice.com.au/food-and-drink/drinks/alcohol/articles/preservatives-in-wine-and-beer. Retrieved on 2017-07-04. 8. Loblay R, Swain A. The role of food intolerance in chronic fatigue syndrome. Retrieved from: https://www.slhd.nsw.gov.au/rpa/allergy/research/RoleOfFoodIntoleranceInCFS.pdf. Retrieved on 2017-07-28.
9. Reinagel, M. Quick and dirty tips. Do things better: Myths about sulphites and wine. retrieved on 30/9/19.