For some people, wine is a pain. Up to 10% of the population suffers adverse reactions from drinking wine – and often sulfites are blamed. But what if, in most cases, the exact opposite were true?! That sulfites are actually the unfairly maligned hero of the piece, and there’s another culprit to blame? More tantalisingly, what if proper action on this front could help many drinkers enjoy wine without having to worry about the side-effects?!
We’re taking a dive into the fascinating world of biogenic amines. These little-known chemicals naturally occur in our bodies and food and wine but, in excess, can cause the kind of issues we’re used to ascribing to wine intolerance (headaches, migraines, rashes, flushing, palpitations, nausea etc). And what can keep their levels low in wine? That’s right – sulfites.
This episode was inspired by the recently published research of Sophie Parker-Thomson MW on the subject of biogenic amines and sulfur dioxide use. She says we need to talk about biogenic amines more, that the wine industry, ‘should be very concerned about biogenic amines,’ and it, ‘needs to act on this issue.’ She identifies sulfur dioxide or sulfites as, ‘the fundamental tool’ to ensure wine safety and calls for the creation of an entirely new category for wines that are low in biogenic amines. At the same time, she warns of the risks of low-sulfur or natural wines that can be dangerously high in biogenic amines.
So could ‘the undeserved hangover’ soon be a thing of the past?
Sophie Parker-Thomson MW (SPT): biogenic amines are important and interesting because their presence in food and beverages can indicate that there’s a quality issue but they can also have potential health impacts on humans when high amounts are consumed. But what’s also really interesting is they also regulate physiological function in humans so they’re ordinarily already present in our bodies but it’s only when they get above a basal threshold they can cause these adverse reactions which are quite broad in effect – everything from headaches to migraines, to nausea, hot flushes, red rashes and heart palpitations, the list goes on. So they’re both essential and potentially detrimental to health function.
Peter Richards MW (PR): these are important things but when they’re in excess they can cause these adverse reactions. Perhaps that’s a good place to start, you’ve listed a few of them. The issue of wine intolerances in general is quite a serious and frustrating issue for lots of people, isn’t it?
SPT: yes it is. My paper did have the broader context of wine intolerance in the background and there is a lot of mystery surrounding it. If you think about wine, it’s a very complex product, there’s over 600 identified components of it, so potentially there’s a lot of different things that can cause intolerance. This is where the frustration comes in because sometimes it’s not readily identifiable what’s causing those people’s reactions and it depends from individual to individual but what I did find quite remarkable was that just the wine intolerance symptoms mirrored that of biogenic amine toxicity.
PR: That’s very interesting. We often find that sulfites or SO2 is often blamed for these adverse reactions. But what you say in your paper is that reactions to sulfites are likely to be very different to those which you detail and which are much more commonly associated with biogenic amines. Can you go into that in more detail?
SPT: Yes, the short answer is that it’s unfair to be blaming sulfur dioxide or sulfites for adverse reactions in terms of wine intolerance. But it’s more complicated than that. There’s a small percentage of the acute asthmatic population and we’re talking about, from the literature, between 3-10% of those that are acute asthmatic population, that’s people who carry around an inhaler and are steroid dependent, and they know about their sulfite sensitivity, they have to avoid all foods and beverages that have sulfites. And that’s why I think sulfite labelling is essential because these people can experience life-threatening reactions. And so the reaction however is overwhelmingly respiratory – it’s anaphylaxis, it requires hospitalisation if exposure occurs. So it’s unfair to pinpoint SO2 reaction in wine because wine comparatively has far less quantities of SO2 than some of the other popular food items out there – orange juice and french fries have more, pickled onions I was astounded to see have 8,000 parts per million (PPM) of SO2, so you don’t get people complaining about massive SO2 reactions to wine, they don’t complain about having a massive reaction to a dried apricot.
PR: Pickled onions! I’m a big fan with my fish and chips, so I’ll obviously have to keep an eye on that, but the symptoms you’re concerned with are less about respiratory ones and more in terms of the ones we’d commonly associate, like headaches or migraines or flushing or nausea. Those were the ones that piqued your interest.
SPT: exactly. I came up with the phrase: the undeserved hangover. You know when you deserve a hangover, when you’ve enjoyed yourself the night before and had one too many. And the alcohol is the factor. But the underserved hangover, you’ve only had maybe one or two glasses of wine and the next morning you wake up with a crushing headache or you feel ill…it’s also things like congestion (nasal) can also be a symptom of biogenic amine toxicity. It’s amazing who you speak to – it’s either themselves or they know of someone who’s had that kind of reactions to wine and it’s often annoying.
PR: very frustrating. Let’s come onto biogenic amines – can you explain what they are and how they’re produced?
SPT: essentially, biogenic amines are produced by bacteria. So you need 3 pre requisites for biogenic amine formation. If you distil it down, you’ve got an amino acid, the bacteria comes along and it will convert (decarboxylate) that amino acid into a biogenic amine. So it’s just dropping the acid group (the carboxyl acid) off the amino acid and it’s turning it into an amine. One of the things is – you might not have heard of biogenic amines per se but you probably will have heard of histamine, which is one of the key biogenic amines that can cause these reactions in people. So the 3 pre-requisites are: you need the precursor (the amino acid), you need the microbe or the specific bacteria that’s capable of changing the amino acid into the biogenic amine, and then you need conditions favourable to bacterial growth ie high pH or a low SO2 environment. Because biogenic amines are bacterially formed, they’re frequently found in products that have involved bacteria in their manufacturing, whether intentionally or not. Not just wine but there’s also biogenic amines in beer, chocolate, fish products, meats, all sorts of things, cheese as well. All in different levels. They’re all around us!
PR: why are they important? Because some people have more of an issue breaking them down, getting rid of them, and that can cause these adverse reactions or toxicity?
SPT: yes. They’re really important in terms of wine because we as humans possess an enzyme, a diamine oxidase, we’ve got lots of them. And this specific one detoxifies biogenic amines. So normally the body will cleanse and detoxify anything that comes in, biogenic amines being one. But with wine, alcohol is a key component. And both alcohol and acetaldehyde inhibit that enzyme from functioning properly. So that detoxifying function is impaired when alcohol is involved so that’s why it’s even more significant in terms of wine because the toxic effects can be amplified.
PR: so it’s like a double whammy – you’ve got these biogenic amines coming in and then ethanol and acetaldehyde, which is preventing the body from getting rid of them. So in your paper you say: ‘Neither the industry nor consumers are aware of the relevance of biogenic amines to health or product quality’ but that, ‘The wine industry should be very concerned about biogenic amines in wine.’ Why should they be important to winemakers, we’ve touched on that a bit, and what more importantly can winemakers do about them? And this is getting onto the heart of your research paper a bit more.
SPT: yeah, exactly, so we’re very lucky as an industry to be making a product that’s actually pretty hostile to the most nasty of bacteria. Think about poultry has campilobacter and meat has listeria risks, so put in perspective, wine is actually a reactively safe product. But that’s not to say that some of the bacteria that can be found in wine can’t produce toxins. So this shouldn’t be ignored. There’s stacks of research out there about biogenic amines and wine, and the different winemaking techniques that can cause their accumulation in wine. So this research was fascinating because this specific relationship between the use of SO2 and its application in the cellar had not been studied with resulting biogenic amine levels in wine. It had always been loosely mentioned as a factor, but in the context of where we’re at in the wine industry right now, there is a trend toward no or low SO2 wines. And we need to look closer into this because potentially what my data shows is that those wines that have not had SO2 or not had pre fermentation SO2 additions, at juice stage, those wines do carry a much higher risk of having elevated and sometimes quite toxic levels of biogenic amines. So that’s why we can’t ignore this issue as an industry because we’re potentially putting consumers’ health at risk. And it’s some individuals more than others because it depends on the individual sensitivity of that person.
PR: This is a really important point. At the moment in wine there’s a big trend for natural or low sulfur wines. Sometimes they’re even recommended if people have adverse reactions, people say: ‘try a natural or low sulfur wine!’ But what you’re saying in your research paper is: actually it could be completely the opposite. If it is indeed biogenic amines causing these adverse reactions like a really bad headache, actually you need to choose a wine in which sulfur dioxide or sulfites has been used properly in, at slightly higher levels, so that then the toxicity or biogenic amine levels are reduced and they’re frankly safer.
SPT: yeah. It’s difficult because the natural wine movement isn’t united on when and how much SO2 should be added. So you can’t categorically say all natural wines will be high in biogenic amines. But I would take issue with people who say that because they haven’t added SO2, that it will in any way be better for you. You’re correct in that my research indicates the contrary could be true. The demonization of SO2 just isn’t supported by the medical and scientific research that’s out there. But I would like to think that people will look at my research with an open mind, and there may just been some very small adjustments that people will need to make in winemaking that will significantly change the outcome in terms of biogenic amine levels. So I’m not talking about wholesale change, I’m just talking about what the research and the data showed it that just a relatively small amount of SO2 added at juice stage, just 30 parts per million or equivalent was enough to knock out the bacteria that were the most prolific BA producers and to ensure that those bacteria didn’t have the opportunity to create those biogenic amines later down the track.
PR: so you’re not setting out to be deliberately provocative, you’re putting the data out there and saying, we need to be informed. Equally, there are increasingly polarised positions in the wine trade and among producers. You’re saying: listen, here are the facts, we need to be aware of these things. Which is fair enough. In your paper you say: ‘the industry needs to act on the issue of biogenic amines.’ What do you mean by that?
SPT: I just think it’s about awareness. We can’t be ignoring this now. Everyone has a moral and potentially legal duty to ensure that wines people are putting out on the shelf for consumers to buy aren’t going to cause people untoward or adverse effects. There’s currently no legal regulation regarding biogenic amine levels in wines.
PR: Should there be? And why is that?
SPT: it’s difficult to police. And there are already so many hurdles and hoops for the wine industry, so introducing more regulation would be very anti-productive and is not necessarily be the answer. So instead of perhaps the stick, the carrot…where producers could have their wines analysed for biogenic amines and show that they’re low and therefore will be safer for those who have intolerance in this area. I do believe there’s an opportunity for a group of producers to band together and get their wines analysed in a lab and having certain limits they must be under and then they could say the wines are low in biogenic amines and that could potentially become a new category. But there’s definitely scope for investigating and exploring that further.
PR: I like the carrot approach! This is interesting. In the paper you call for a creation for this new category of low histamine/low biogenic amine category. And that would be brilliant – it could be something for people who have these issues to look out for. It’s a serious issue. There are challenges to making that sort of thing work. Do you see an easy way to make that happen?
SPT: There’s a current issue with stating that a wine is low in histamine because under the current legislation universally, it constitutes a health claim. But I think there’s potentially a way if a certifying body or charter that people could then be a part of and then the only process to fulfil would be the lab analysis. Theoretically it’s quite a simple process and it would involve a lot of education about what biogenic amines are and what this means but you know, it would take a unified movement from the industry to get that going. But that’s the way to do it, perhaps a little icon saying: low amine wine.
PR: which would be really helpful for people! If people do have adverse reactions of the kind you’ve described, and this could be caused by biogenic amines, what style of wine should they go for, to be safe?
SPT: I’m gonna look really biased here but my research was looking at New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc cos that’s what I had available. But I chose it also because it had that really wide range of winemaking styles, from the classic Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc style, inoculated, tank fermented all the way through the now zero SO2 additions, skins fermented, alternative wines, so but yeah my data showed that classic Marlborough style, all about fresh fruit purity, they always have SO2 added in the field or at juice stage, so all those styles were low in the data, so I’d be confident that anything you know has been processed quickly to retain fruit purity so things like Riesling, would be as well. But definitely that’s something that would warrant further research because mine was very limited in its scope. And I could only focus on one thing. But aside from us, quizzing the winemaker if they’ve added SO2 at juice stage, you can be reasonably confident that things like classic Sauvignon and Riesling would be very low.
PR: Fascinating. Sophie – thanks for you time.
SPT: Thank you, Peter, pleasure.