FeaturesJune/July 2008 Issue

Do I Have a Beer Allergy or Wine Allergy?

Allergens like sulfites, histamine, pesticides, and fining agents could be hiding in your favorite drink.

Alcohol Allergens

Are your favorite wines loaded with allergens resulting from unwashed grapes to tannins to added sulfites? Organic and biodynamic ("green") wines are grown without pesticides or artificial additives, making them safer, if not allergen free.

[Updated June 12, 2017]

Karen Lin isn't much of a drinker but she does enjoy the occasional glass of wine. When she does, real problems begin.

"My throat closes up and my face puffs up when I drink wine or beer," she says. "It's full-out anaphylactic shock."

The first time it happened, she headed to the emergency room. "They couldn't believe it had anything to do with alcohol," she says. "They claimed there are no proteins in alcohol to trigger that kind of shock." However, it's now known that there are several ingredients hiding in many drinks that trigger a beer allergy or a wine allergy.

Her experience is hardly unusual. Though anaphylaxis is rare (alcohol accounts for only a small percentage of the United States' 150 annual food-related anaphylaxis fatalities), wine allergy and beer allergy are both relatively common. The causes of these allergic reactions range from sulfites to sturgeon swim bladders. A single bottle of beer, for example, can contain more than 10 allergens, including preservatives, histamines, animal products, pesticides, wheat, yeast and corn.

Why are these allergens added and what symptoms do they cause? What is it about these additives that alcohol producers consider essential enough to risk the well-being of millions of American food allergy sufferers? As it turns out, it depends on the allergen. Some are simply more dangerous than others.

Sulfite Sensitivities for Allergic Asthmatics 

Sulfites caused a major outcry in the 1980s. After several studies found that inhaling and ingesting sulfites could be deadly to asthmatics, the FDA began a regulation campaign that successfully curbed annual sulfite deaths to the single digits. All wines and beers containing more than 10 parts per million of sulfites are required to mention them on their product label.

According to the FDA, roughly 1 percent of people in the United States are sulfite-sensitive, almost all of them asthmatic. It's estimated that 5 percent of all asthmatics have sulfite sensitivities.

Taylor Richardson, a 28-year-old office manager from Boise, Idaho, is an allergic asthmatic who exhibits a bad reaction to wine. "I get bright red blotches down my neck and chest, like hives," she says. "My face gets red, hot and a little itchy. After about a third to a half glass of wine, my throat starts to close."  

Her reaction may be caused either by sulfites which occur naturally during winemaking or by sulfites, such as sodium metabisulfite (SMB) and potassium metabisulfate (PMB), which are artificially added to conventional wines and beers. SMB, a common beer preservative, causes reactions in about 4 percent of people with sulfite sensitivities. PMB is used as a preservative in both beer and wine, and is preferred because it doesn't add to a drink's sodium content. Both PMB and SMB are known to trigger reactions in sensitive people, ranging from runny nose to anaphylaxis.

Organic and biodynamic wines, produced using no artificial pesticides or preservatives, are only allowed 100 ppm of naturally-occurring sulfites—and no added sulfites. Most conventional wines contain up to 350 ppm.

No big deal, according to Mimi Gatens, director of sustainability at Benziger Winery. "The levels of sulfites found in a bottle of wine are less than those found in a bottle of prescription medication," she says. "Without the use of sulfites, flavors can move quickly from fruit to nutty to cardboard to vinegar."

Both naturally-occurring and artificial sulfites essentially dissipate over time, says Fred Freitag, D.O., of the Diamond Headache Clinic in Chicago. "The sulfites naturally produced in organic wines are so volatile in a corked bottle that most of them will escape during storage." The same goes for artificial preservatives PMB and SMB. "In solution, these turn into hydrogen sulfite or other salts and dissipate…becoming essentially stale within three months," Freitag says.

For that reason, and because of how rare sulfite allergies are, doctors are quick to discount them during diagnosis. "I'll ask a patient complaining of an adverse reaction what he or she ate and drank when (the reaction) occurred," says Dan Atkins, M.D., pediatrician at the National Jewish Center for Immunology and Respiratory Medicine in Denver, Colorado. "If beer or wine doesn't seem to be the problem, I tend to dismiss sulfite sensitivity." 

Histamines and Tannins Could Be Causing Your Headache

If you're not sensitive to sulfites, a host of other factors could be causing your wine or beer reaction. Histamines and tannins are two naturally occurring elements commonly indicted in reactions, especially headaches.

Ahna Olana, a 61-year-old therapist from Louisville, Colorado, gets such bad headaches from wine that she now drinks sparkling pear juice instead. "When I drink wine…I will almost always get a killer migraine either later that day or the next," she says.

Headaches are hardly uncommon. As many as 80 percent of migraine sufferers' symptoms are triggered by red wines.

Tannins are flavenoids that add a bitter flavor to red wine and also prevent oxidation as wine ages. They're found in grape skins, stems and seeds, and sometimes they leach into wine from oak storage barrels. Tannins increase the amount of the feel-good chemical serotonin in the blood, but it also can induce headaches.    

Histamines, which come from grape skins, are strongly indicted in red wine headaches. They're part of a family of known migraine triggers called amines, which include common migraine culprits, such as cheese, chocolate and cured meat. Histamines also form during the beer-making process. Dark beers, such as porters, are often rich in the compound.  

People who react to the histamine in alcohol may also have low levels of an intestinal enzyme called diamine oxidase, which normally processes histamine without causing symptoms. Insufficient quantity of this enzyme causes people to experience strong headaches, a runny nose or flushing—symptoms similar to a seasonal allergy. In fact, if you have seasonal allergies, the histamines in alcohol might make them worse.

"I have a bad allergy to mold and cannot drink red wine when I'm in moldy climates," 

says Tamara Greenleaf, a 40-year-old marketing executive from Portland, Oregon.

"I get a very strong histamine reaction."

Greenleaf's symptoms are indicative of something allergists call cross-reactivity. "With some foods, an allergy to one food or substance may render sensitivity to other foods or substances in the same classification," says Clifford Basset, M.D., of Allergy and Asthma Care of New York. Histamine-rich red wine, therefore, might make some peoples' seasonal allergies worse. "If you have seasonal allergies, avoiding red wine might be a good idea," says Seif Shaheen, M.D., Ph.D, of King's College, London.

Allergic to Beer

Wheat and Gluten in Beer and Wine: Cause for Concern?

For the estimated 3 million Americans with celiac disease, beer must be avoided to keep their health in check. "The problem in beer," says USDA representative Don Kasarda, "is the presence of peptides from wheat, rye or barley." Beer is usually made with barley, yeast, and hops. However, beers made with millet, oats, sorghum and other alternative grains are generally gluten free. Hops, a flower, does not contain gluten.

The answer for celiacs is to look for a beer made with alternative grains. The 0.1 percent of Americans with allergies to wheat alone can drink most beers, since barley, not wheat, is usually the main ingredient. Specialty wheat beers, such as Hefeweizen or Weissbier, are exceptions.  

Wine can also present an issue for those with wheat or gluten sensitivities. A paste of flour and water is often used to seal new oak barrels. Barrels are hosed out before filling, but some people claim that traces of hardened flour remain, contaminating the wine. Contact the manufacturer to ascertain whether glutinous barrels are used when making the beer you drink.

Fining Agents: More Hidden Allergens in Your Beer and Wine

A fining agent is a substance mixed into wine or beer during production, then removed by filtration or sedimentation. Three potentially allergenic fining agents are egg whites, casein, and isinglass, a fish derivative.

Egg whites are added to wine as a binding agent for tannins. They latch onto tannins and then settle at the bottom of the barrel, removing harsh taste from the wine while maintaining its color. Milk-derived casein is a protein used to clear up discoloration in white wines. Isinglass, a substance made from the swim bladders of sturgeon fish, is also used as a fining agent in both beers and wines.  

Each of these substances can potentially unleash severe allergies. People with egg allergies might react with asthma, hives and even anaphylactic shock. Parvalbumin, the main allergen found in scaled fish, can cause anaphylaxis to those sensitive to fish.

Casein, a common allergen found in milk products, sets off headaches, runny nose and gastric distress.

Wine and beer producers claim that allergen levels are too low to cause reactions. They state that fining agents are removed almost entirely by gravity and filtration after use. "One could say the egg whites cleaned the wine and disappeared," says D. Mic, a representative for The Organic Wine Company

Studies have shown that allergen levels from fining agents are extremely low. One European Safety Authority study estimated the maximum amount of parvalbumin found in beer to be roughly 0.005 micrograms per liter. The levels in other processed foods tend to be as high as 0.006 ounces per pound of food. Two additional studies confirmed that 21 people with known fish allergies were able to drink isinglass-fined beer without problems. A 2006 Nutrition study concluded that wines fined with casein, egg whites or isinglass neither activated the immune system nor induced anaphylaxis in sensitive subjects.

If you find fining agents still aren't worth the risk, look for names like albumin and caseinate on the label of your libation and steer clear. Some, but not all, unfined wines either state "unfined" or list ingredients on the label. The best way to know for sure is to contact the manufacturer.

Yeast, Pesticides, and More Hidden Ingredients in Beer and Wine 

Yeast, a fungus, ferments the sugars in beer and wine, turning them into alcohol and carbon dioxide. There's no such thing as yeast-free beer or wine, although one beer, Sapporo, claims it comes close. If you suffer from candidasis, colitis or Crohn's disease, experts recommend staying away from beer and wine entirely.

Corn, another common cause of migraines, is sometimes added to beer to increase its alcohol content. Allergic symptoms might include headache, swelling of the face, stomach upset and, in serious cases, anaphylaxis. Corn is more prevalent in low-cost or homebrewed beers, especially those with high alcohol content.

Ethanol itself can be an allergen to some people or make people more sensitive to other allergens. BHA, a preservative added to conventional beers, has been shown to trigger hives.

Pesticides in conventional grapes are also an issue. Winemakers generally don't wash grapes before pulping them, so any of the 13 different kinds of pesticides found on the average grape might end up inside your wine glass.

“Green” Wines

Wines can be chock-full of allergens, from unwashed grapes to tannins to added sulfites. Organic and biodynamic ("green") wines are grown without pesticides or artificial additives, making them safer, if not allergen free. Fining agents and sulfites, however, are still added to green wines.

Allergic to Wine

"We do use egg whites and the wines are likely to have glutinous materials in the barrels," says Benziger's Gatens. The real difference lies in the farming. By using composting and soil rotation in place of pesticides, green growers avoid use of synthetic chemicals, reducing the list of variables for allergy sufferers.

Still, the days of trial and error are far from over. Rini Twait's case is typical. Twait, 60, always felt sick after she drank a glass of wine. She figured out on her own how much to drink. "A few sips seems to be okay but a full glass is strictly off-limits."

To mitigate the challenging process of figuring out what triggers your symptoms, find out in advance the ingredients in your beer or wine. Then visit your allergist for a skin test involving those ingredients. If everything comes out negative, your allergist can help steer you in the right direction in terms of what to try drinking next.  

Allergen-Free Beer and Wine

Fortunately, there is a bright side. The more than 12 million Americans suffering from food allergies are demanding wines and beers that they can drink safely. California, the nation's biggest producer of organic wines, increased its sustainable practices by 24 percent between 2004 and 2006, raising the number of low-sulfite, pesticide-free wines on the shelves. Bard's Tale, a gluten-free beer brewed in New York, just added three more states to its distribution area, an increasingly common move for the growing list of gluten-free beer producers.  

As more consumers become aware of their options, those options, in turn, will increase, promising a future where more libations can be savored the way they were meant to be—slowly, deliciously and sans headaches or allergic reactions.

See also:

Shrubs: 3 Gluten-Free Drinks You Should Try

Gluten-Free Holiday Cocktails

Gluten-Free Summertime Drinks

Comments (14)

Wines are often blamed to provide histamines which they quite often but not necessarily always do. Whether or not a wine contains histamines depends on the quality of the grapes and on their further processing.
On request of wine lovers searching for "histamine-free" or "low histamine" wines we sent several wines of our assortment to a laboratory for a special histamine analysis. Now we can prove that there are indeed wines having a histamine content of less than 0.1 mg/l.
Best regards
Weingut Fuchs, Florsheim-Dalsheim, Germany

Posted by: winelady | June 21, 2015 4:27 AM    Report this comment

It's fantastic that the wine industry has taken notice of sulfite sensitivities! Millions of wine drinkers suffer from it without even knowing that they might have allergies to sulfites. There is an amazing selection of no-sulfites added wines. But for people who want to drink a particular wine from a particular country there is finally a solution.

OenDrop removes up to 90% of the sulfites in #wine. A couple sprays in your wine glass prior to drinking will help with #sulfite levels. We are launching in May 2015, and welcome those in the Chicago area for our launch party on May 15, 2015

Visit OenDrop website on Facebook
Follow us on Twitter to be notified when you can pick up a bottle of OenDrop!

Let us know which stores you'd like us to see us!


Posted by: OenDrop | May 4, 2015 8:38 AM    Report this comment

It's fantastic that the wine industry has taken notice of sulfite sensitivities! Millions of wine drinkers suffer from it without even knowing that they might have allergies to sulfites. There is an amazing selection of no-sulfites added wines. But for people who want to drink a particular wine from a particular country there is finally a solution.

OenDrop removes up to 90% of the sulfites in #wine. A couple sprays in your wine glass prior to drinking will help with #sulfite levels. We are launching in May 2015, and welcome those in the Chicago area for our launch party on May 15, 2015

Visit OenDrop website on Facebook
Follow us on Twitter to be notified when you can pick up a bottle of OenDrop!

Let us know which stores you'd like us to see us!


Posted by: OenDrop | May 4, 2015 8:38 AM    Report this comment

Your article is very interesting and fantastic.thanks for sharing. It is great to read.

Posted by: janetwillson213 | March 29, 2014 8:34 AM    Report this comment

Great article! I know that my allergy is not so common but I would like to add it in. I was diagnosed two years ago with an allergy to propylene glycol. Besides being in thousands of food products, medications, health and beauty products, etc., it my also be found in beer or wine. Many mass production brewers (and some smaller ones) may use a product called StabilFoam as an anti-foaming agent, which is essentially propylene glycol.
In addition, artificial flvaorings and/or colorings may be of issue for someone with a propylene glycol allergy. While I am uncertain about dyes and lakes, the food coloring one would buy at the supermarket is straight up PG. Recently, several (at least a dozen) bars in my area were cracked down on for watering down their top shelf liquor and adding food coloring. A real nightmare for someone like me if I were to order something that contained one of those liquors. As far as artificial flavorings go, those are all proprietary so who knows what could be in them. I found out recently that our local winery was at one time using real fruit to make fruit wines (blueberry, peach). Since they found this to be incredibly labor intensive, they started ordering artificial flavorings. I called the company to find out if those particular flavors contained propylene glycol (not to find out the whole list of ingredients) and no big surprise, I did not receive a callback.
I would love to see a list of beers and wines that may contain this ingredient in the same way there are lists of vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free wines and beers. Or full disclosure of ingredients on the label. Or something...Would it take more companies to admit that they use it or more people with this rare allergy to be diagnosed?

Posted by: frantastic1 | August 2, 2013 9:58 AM    Report this comment

Antihistamines block the release of histamines but they are drowsy and also there is reverse rhintis effect. The natural ingredient to fight histamines is lemons. Having high concentrations of citric acid its also anti bacterial and anti histamine. Also being an anti oxidant it makes breathing easier. see wikipedia.

Posted by: david_india | June 19, 2013 12:09 PM    Report this comment

Ah, yes, the battle over distilled ethanol. *sigh* My pharmacist filled a prescription for my corn-allergic son that was written "no corn" disolved in ethanol. He argued with me about it having any corn in it--"But it's just ethanol!'. Sorry, dude. My kid's reaction trumps your degree. Give me the prescription without the ethanol, please. I don't care about what molecules make it through the process, or how logical or reasonable it is for a person to have a reaction--it happens. My son can't even eat things with white vinegar in them, which is a further processing of alcohol, so clearly SOMETHING from the corn that his body recognizes as corn is making it through these processes. He's just 9, so his consumption of alcoholic beverages remains far in our future, but I do not eagerly anticipate college. In addition to corn, he's allergic to wheat, dairy, soy, eggs, oats and is gluten intolerant. Navigating the college scene without dying is going to be a miracle. We've made great strides in just the 9 years since he was born--hopefully in another 12, labels will be even clearer, and there will be more safe options for him, so it's not so dangerous to fit in with his friends.

Posted by: tardis_blue | January 15, 2013 2:06 PM    Report this comment

Great article! I do have Celiac disease, for starters.... The other night, I drank a little
over 2 classes of red wine. When I went to bed, I was asleep in fairly short order, but
I woke up with the worst leg cramps I have ever had in my life. They wouldn't quit.
They were showing up all over my legs, especially from the knee down. I had to keep getting up and trying to walk, stretch, rub my legs... anything to try to make them stop. I have never felt such pain; thought I was going to cry. By morning, not only was I exhausted, but my legs were so sore from the intensity of the cramps- that they felt bruised all over, like I had been beat-up. It was a horrible experience!

Posted by: Joanne Y | December 12, 2012 10:00 AM    Report this comment

After my most scary allergic reaction ever (when I'd had about three sips of a drink with vodka in it), I'm fearful of drinking anything other than a couple of gluten-free beers I know don't cause a reaction. The drink I had turned out to be made with Absolute vodka--made from wheat, not potatoes as the bartender believed. Information said the harmful allergens should be removed to virtually nil by distillation, but I had the most severe reaction I've ever had: tightening of chest, hives on neck and chest, tightening of throat, pounding heart, and a feeling of doom I will never.forget. The receptionist at my doctor's office used to work for a liquor distributor, and she said a brand called American Harvest is one of the few vodkas that is free of gluten and wheat. It may be a long time before I'm brave enough to try it. I love New Grist gluten free beer and Bard's is my second choice. I use New Planet GF ale for cooking. Wine makes me immediately flush (neck, face, chest) and causes a headache, so I need to see if some of the allergens mentioned in this article are the cause. Great article!

Posted by: Sheri R | December 11, 2012 5:37 PM    Report this comment

Interesting but I do disagree with one comment...."Casein, a common allergen found in milk products, sets off headaches, runny nose and gastric distress." I am allergic to casein and it does not give me a headache or runny nose. My reaction to it is respiratory. Other than that, I found the article to be very informative.

Posted by: Alison H | December 11, 2012 11:40 AM    Report this comment

I have found that if I stay away from American wines, I do NOT get a headache from the synthetic sulfites. Australian, Chilean, Italian, French, etc....anything but American.

Posted by: barefootgirl | August 21, 2012 8:33 PM    Report this comment

Fantastic article. While I still can't figure out what I am allergic to when I consume alcoholic beverages, it was great to read about the possibilities! Thank you

Posted by: margaret S | August 21, 2012 1:05 PM    Report this comment

I am highly allergic to wine, even if a teaspoon of it gets on my food I get violently ill, we've narrowed it down to (we think) an allergy to propylene glycol - this is added to some wines and also a lot of skin care products (that I react to).

Posted by: soton71 | August 21, 2012 10:57 AM    Report this comment

This is a very interesting article. Just recently, my family learned from a friend that while distilled alcoholic beverages are assumed to be inherently gluten free, that this isn't always the case. The distillation process does remove gluten (because it is a heavy molecule); however, during the blending and bottling processes that occur after the distillation process, alcoholic beverages can become contaminated by gluten for the same reason that any kind of beverage can. For example: There is a warning on Steaz beverages (presently) stating: "This beverage may have been bottled in a brewery that also produces wheat products." Many alcoholic beverage producers add compounds to their vodkas to make them more palatable. Are these compounds always gluten free, or just inherently so? It's not fun (or easy) to put on our detective hats, so my hat off to Living Without for making this job easier.

Posted by: Bunny H | May 10, 2012 4:35 PM    Report this comment

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