The authors surveyed about 950 people, slightly more women than men, about symptoms they'd experienced after drinking any type of wine—red, white, or rosé—and how frequently they experienced those symptoms. They were also asked if a doctor had ever diagnosed them with a wine allergy or a wine intolerance.
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While just one man and one woman reported having been medically diagnosed with a wine allergy, 25 percent of the survey respondents reported having some form of allergy-like symptom after drinking wine, with red wine provoking more reactions than white or rosé. The most common symptoms were flushed skin, runny nose, and diarrhea. About 50 people reported having stomach or intestinal cramps, and another 32 reported vomiting. A few people even reported severe symptoms such as low blood pressure, shortness of breath, asthma, and "circulatory collapse" a general failure of the circulatory system, after drinking wine.
They didn't consider "red wine headache"—or any form of headache, for that matter—as a sign of wine intolerance because headaches could be caused by so many other factors.
All in all, 38 people experienced frequent enough symptoms that they qualified as having an official intolerance to wine. Those people were also more likely than the general survey population to report having other forms of food intolerance, for instance, intolerance to nuts, apples, or milk.
This was an "exploratory" study, meant just to determine how big the problem is before scientists decide to pursue further research on what's causing it or what the allergies and intolerances could be attributed to. But they did have a few theories—and they extend beyond sulfites, the preservatives used in wine that have been known to trigger headaches and other symptoms in people who are sulfite intolerant.
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One possible culprit is a protein called lipid transfer protein, which comes from grape skins and is a recognized allergen. Since skins are included in the fermentation of red wine, it could be the reason red wine triggers more reactions than white wine, which is made from grapes without the skins. Other triggers could be proteins that form on grapes as a natural defense against fungal infections, as well as histamines and tyramine, two more proteins formed by yeast and lactic acid bacteria present during the fermentation process.
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Interestingly, the reactions only seemed to come when drinking fermented grapes. Very few people who couldn't drink wine had similar reactions to whole grapes, which the authors suggest may point to the proteins formed during fermentation.
But don't despair! There was good news from the study. If you drink wine often enough, you may start to develop a tolerance to its allergenic proteins—provided you can put up with whatever allergy-like reaction you experience while drinking it and provided those aren't life threatening.
In the meantime, you can try sticking with white wines, which have fewer of the allergenic proteins than red. Or, find a cocktail that doesn't make you miserable. May we suggest a GMO-free, organic margarita?