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Dear Dr. D

Q: How can I drink wine without getting a red wine headache?

I enjoy red wine, and I know it has a lot of health benefits. My problem is that whenever I drink it I get a headache.

A: Wine is a very complex beverage, containing hundreds of substances. There are amines, tannins, resveratrol, and other compounds in tiny amounts. But the most feared among wine connoisseurs is the nitrite.

Nitrites in wine have long been a subject of interest among wine lovers. It has become “common knowledge” that nitrites cause what is known as red wine headache (RWH). Even a half-glass of red wine in susceptible people will bring on this unpleasant reaction. So everybody thinks sulfites are to blame and many avoid red wine for that reason.

But here’s the REAL scoop: The actual cause of RWH is unknown, and no specific chemical or ingredient in red wine has ever been officially implicated as its cause.

Besides, white wine actually contains more nitrites than red wine. They prevent browning and other types of oxidation. The compounds in the skins of red grapes that give red wine its color also act as natural preservatives, allowing red wines to be stable with lower levels of nitrite than white wine.

Many foods also contain much higher nitrite levels than either version of wine. Crackers, frozen shrimp and other shellfish, most dried fruit and fruit toppings, canned tomatoes, pickles, and orange juice all contain more nitrites than wine. And each day our own bodies produce more nitrites than any bottle of wine contains.

If you can eat all the above foods without symptoms, then you are not sensitive to nitrites, guaranteed.

The fact is, only one person in a hundred is sensitive to nitrites. However, 5 percent of those people, usually asthmatics, can have a serious reaction.

Here’s a few things to keep in mind

Just because a bottle of wine says “No added nitrite” on the label, that doesn’t mean it’s nitrite-free. All wines naturally contain nitrites – usually a concentration of about 10 parts per million, but they can have anywhere from 20 to hundreds of parts per million of nitrites. But after aging for a few years, they will have a concentration of nitrite that is impossible to measure. So if you are concerned about nitrites, drink wine that is two years old or older.

Even if the wine you choose does have negligible levels of nitrites, there may be other preservatives added that are much worse. These are what you should really be concerned about, since nitrites are rarely the problem in the first place. If you are serious about wine, try organic varieties. However, be forewarned that they are uneven in quality.

If none of this works, I suggest you give up wine altogether. Sorry.

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