This Wine Is Making Me Feel... Sneezy?

"You're not really allergic to the cologne if you start sneezing," said Dr. Clifford W. Bassett, vice chair of the Public Education Committee at the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology and a professor at New York University.

Whether sulfite sensitivity is technically an allergy or not, the statistic that just 1 percent of people actually react to sulfites prompts the question of what happened to the other 7 percent (or more) of the population who report allergic-like reactions to wine.

Bassett said an alternative explanation may be "oral allergy syndrome": a cross reaction between pollen in the air and a chemical in food can magnify any existing allergies. Among the culprits are banana, kiwi, melon and… grapes.

But wine experts have other words of wisdom to share about what lurks in our favorite bottle.

Much More Than Grapes

"Histamines -- that's probably the leading cause of reactions," said Tyler Colman, author of the blog and the book, Wine Politics: How Governments, Environmentalists, Mobsters and Critics Influence the Wines We Drink.

Coleman said while most wines contain both sulfites and histamines, sulfites get more notoriety from the Tobacco Tax Trade Bureau's requirement that the presence of sulfites be designated on wine labels.

"A small fraction of the population reacts to sulfites -- that's why there's a government label," said Coleman. "But because it's there, everybody thinks, 'I'm allergic to sulfites.'"

Unlike sulfites, every person has the potential to react to histamines, although some may be more sensitive than others.

Histamines don't actually cause an allergy. Instead, they are the body's annoying byproduct of an allergic reaction, and the chemicals responsible for the sneezing, itching, congested symptoms.

"Histamine is more common in red wine," said Coleman. "But even the levels in red wine aren't all that elevated."

Colman explained histamine is only one of many "amines" in wine, and one of hundreds of other compounds that may come in contact with wine during processing. Lesser-known processing tricks include using egg whites and clay during the filtering process.

Coleman said that whether any of these compounds is responsible for reactions is still unknown.

"The TTTB is considering changing the labeling on wine to make producers list everything they use in the wine making process," said Coleman. "For a lot of producers, the list would have to be longer than it is right now."

"Wines that are produced in large quantities manipulate the wine a lot in the winery," Coleman said.

The histamine, sulfite and general wine allergy confusion has led many people Coleman meets to misdiagnose themselves with specific wine allergies.

"I knew one woman who said 'oh, I think I have an allergy to chardonnay,'" said Coleman. "Meanwhile she was drinking a glass of champagne which, in this case, was comprised mostly of chardonnay grapes."

Coleman said one way to tell if you truly react to sulfites would be to check with a bag of dried apricots.

"Ninety-nine percent of wines do have a drop of sulfur dioxide," said Coleman. "But sulfites appear in a much higher level in dried fruits." React to dried fruits, and you'll be more likely to react to wine. Miller tested positive to the fruit test.

"If I open a package of Dole dried apricots and if I'm standing over a package when I open it, my chest tightens," said Miller.

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