Because a bare cupboard and an empty fridge are sad sights to behold, the Urban Forager hunts through food & wine shops bringing home tasty morsels that make your kitchen table the best place to eat in town.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Red Wine Headaches

Whenever I get a headache from drinking wine, I have no one to blame but myself. The equation is simple:
One or two (or three) glasses too many = pounding head.

For me, avoiding the headache is simply a matter of self-control. Not so, however, for countless unlucky wine lovers who seem to get a headache just by looking at a bottle of wine. Red wine takes all the blame, but why?
Many consumers mistakenly place the blame on sulfites. Sulfur dioxide is a naturally occurring substance in wine, produced during fermentation. Most winemakers also add additional sulfites to prevent oxidation, which affects wine’s flavor and stability. There is no such thing as sulfite free wine, but there is a growing market for wine with no additional sulfites added. I haven’t tried too many, but one I can recommend is Casa Barranca’s Arts and Crafts Red. What you’ll get from a bottle of Arts and Crafts Red is a delicious wine, but not one that will cure your headache woes. Unless you are an asthmatic or have a severe allergy to sulfites, there are really no studies out there linking sulfites with headaches.
When I was in culinary school the wine instructor blamed headaches on histamines, and said a sure way to avoid a headache was by popping an anti-histamine like Benadryl before you went to bed after a night of drinking. Many foods contain more histamine than wine, but alcohol can exacerbate the effects of histamine in the system.The Oxford Companion to Wine,a hefty 800-page wine bible, also brings up the matter of histamines, although wisely points out (unlike my wine instructor) that taking an anti-histamine is not recommended when you’re drinking, so you’re better off drinking wines with low histamines levels. Histamines are found in the skins of grapes. Red wine contains more histamines because in order to color the juice red, the wine must soak with the dark colored grape skins.
The Oxford Companion also blames phenolics, which “liberate the chemical messenger 5-hydroxytryptamine (serotonin) which plays a part in the initiation of migraine.” Phenolics are chemical compounds found in the juice and pulp of grapes, and in much higher levels in grape stems, seeds and skins. For red wine, it’s a double phenolic whammy: phenolics are more abundant in dark-skinned grapes to start with, and then the wine picks up even more phenolics when the juice is soaking with the dark grape skins to add color. While the phenols may give you a headache, they are also the reason red wine is so heart healthy and packed with antioxidants.
This week, a study was released by a group of chemists who have nominated “several culprits for ‘red wine headache,’ including biogenic amines like tyramine and histamine.” Their studies are not entirely conclusive, but they warn headache sufferers to stay away from pretty much everything that makes my life worth living: wine, sake, chocolate, cheese, olives, nuts and cured meats. All of these things contain high levels of amines.
But there is hope. Kind of. The chemists have created a device that can determine amine levels in about five minutes. The device currently only works with liquids (so you can’t test that wedge of cheese) and is about the size of a briefcase. A smaller, hand-held version is being developed, and researchers say you could “take it to a restaurant and test your favorite wines.” But I can tell you that no server in their right mind will open a bottle of wine so a diner can test out their hand-held amine detector. And if the wine has too many amines, what are you going to do, send it back? Perhaps more realistically, the scientists also say the device could be used to test wine before it is bottled, and the amine level could be listed on the label.
Ultimately, I don’t know how useful this study is. But I do love that food and wine has become a topic of discussion in the otherwise dull-sounding “Journal of Analytical Chemistry,” where this study was published. And I don’t think headache sufferers should despair. There’s an exciting and delicious world of low-amine beer and white wine out there just waiting to be discovered!