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Sulphites are systematically mentioned on food labelling

Before explaining more precisely what sulphites represent in the wine-making process and the impact on consumer health, let first define what they are.

Sulphites are chemical compounds, salts that come from the sulphurous acid H2SO3; they are mainly used as preservatives for their antioxidant role. For example, sulphites are found in wine (red, white or rosé in different quantities) but also in other drinks and foods that need to be preserved: cider, pickles in jars, dried fruits, dried vegetables such as potatoes, some seafood, etc.

Wine labelling mentions the presence of sulphites according to different European codes. E220 is sulphur dioxide, a toxic agent that causes strong irritation when inhaled but remains essential in the wine fermentation, E221 (sodium sulphite), E222 (sodium hydrogen sulphite, also known as sodium bisulphite), E223 (sodium metabisulphite also known as pyrosulphurous acid or disodium salt), E224 (potassium metabisulphite), E225 (calcium disulphite), E226 (calcium sulphite), E227 (hydrogen sulphite), E228 (potassium hydrogen sulphite). 

Since 2005, in application of the European standard, aimed at clearly informing consumers of the presence of sulphites, all bottles of wine with an SO2 (sulphur dioxide) content of more than 10 mg per litre must be labelled with the words: "contains sulphites". This level corresponds to a consumption of 1 glass of wine per day for a woman and 3 glasses of wine for a man. 

The WHO, for its part, sets a tolerated daily dose of sulphite at 0.7mg per kg of weight. Wine alone represents 70% of our daily sulphite intake, which is a significant level of sulphite. By exceeding these recommendations, we expose ourselves to the risk of sulphite intolerance, causing undesirable or even serious effects on our health.

A question arises: why are all these food additives used mainly in the production of wine, and what impact do they have on our health when we consume them?

The wine directly concerned 

Sulphites are naturally present in wine. However, the winemaker may choose to add some to fix its taste over a long period of time.

However, winegrowers and wine producers suffer from a bad reputation when they systematically use sulphur dioxide and other food additives in winemaking.

To overcome the toxicity of sulphur dioxide (SO2) due to overuse, more and more French winegrowers are producing "natural wines": grown as naturally as possible, the grapes undergo an "ethical" transformation in the winery. Chemical inputs are banned. As an extension of the biodynamic cultivation of their vines, which is based on the observation of the nature rhythms (respecting the movements of the moon, the constellations, and the tides to better maintain the culture of the vine and obtain better quality grapes), these winegrowers let nature operate, giving only a little help for the magic to work and thus reveal the qualities of the terroir. And let's face it, mastering the natural winemaking process doesn’t require less knowledge of chemistry or savoir-faire in the "classic" winemaking process... it requires more.

The use of sulphur dioxide in the fermentation and conservation of wine

The production of bottled wine allows consumers to keep this fermented grape for several years, which is why winegrowers have made extensive use of sulphur dioxide, an essential additive in wine production.

It is often thought that natural or organic wine does not contain sulphites, but this is a mistake. Bacteria and yeasts contained in the fermentation of wine produce sulphur dioxide (about 10 to 30 mg per litre); therefore, when we talk about the use of sulphites by oenologist winemakers, we take it to mean the "addition" of sulphites, because they remain essential for the production of bottled wine. One must recognize that without sulfur dioxide in the fermentation of the wine, we obtain a vinegar solution... SO2 eliminates some bacteria and yeasts, ensuring a microbiological balance. Used as an antioxidant, it also prevents any loss of aroma. SO2 exists in different forms: solid, liquid (most commonly used by winemakers), gaseous and is found in almost all wines.

White wines, for example sweet or semi-dry wines, contain a large quantity of sulphites, dry white wines contain a moderate quantity of sulphites, while red wines contain fewer sulphites. Each winemaker has his method of fermentation and production of his wine, so it is useful for the consumer to be able to check the label on the bottle: the winemaker does not add the same amount of sulphites from one cuvee to another, others only add sulphites for storage and transport for better conservation.

So yes, it is true that making a wine without added sulphur that can be kept in the cellar is a challenge, but the precision work of some winemakers takes it up with talent. By way of comparison, tasting a natural wine is an experience to be repeated even for the most experienced connoisseur.

Attentive to nature, the Fons Sanatis estate, the Vignerons de Tautavel, the Domaine des Trottières, the Cave de Cairanne, François Lurton and even Jeff Carrel will surprise you. These master winemakers are a bit rebellious and in constant search of balance and respect for the fruit.

Sulphur dioxide tolerance on our health 

As we have seen, the tolerated daily rate of sulphites is 10 mg per litre, because SO2 is known to disturb our body and even for its harmful effects.

Indeed, its an allergen and some people can develop reactions when it is absorbed in low doses, such as itching, hives, sneezing, abdominal pains... and painful headaches when it is absorbed in large quantities. For asthmatic people, a reasonable dose is enough to make the respiratory system dysfunctional because SO2 is toxic when inhaled.

Alcohol abuse is bad for your health, please consume in moderation.

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