The simple chemistry behind removing wine sulfites

There’s something horrifying about our standard reaction to a food label reading “Contains X” being “Is X bad?” That appears to be the standard reaction to sulfite labeling on wines: they had to tell me it’s there, so it must be bad for me. But it would be unfair of me to harp too much on snap judgments when I feel so much instant distrust toward Üllo just because they brand themselves with this horribly stereotyped photo of four young, attractive entrepreneurs smiling broadly at each other over their glasses.

Üllo promises to take any wine that comes with a “contains sulfites” label and turn it into a kinder, gentler, sulfite-free beverage. (Pardon the irony, but I’m still getting over that photo, and their name.) Just to cover my bases, once again, if you react to sulfites, you react to a lot of foods other than wine, you’re probably a severe asthmatic, and you’ll know. There’s nothing wrong with a tool to remove sulfites per se, but it contributes to this whole myth of their being a good reason why the Ordinary Wine Consumer would want to.

The scientific principle at work here is simple, and Üllo is a miniature version of a tool chemists and biochemists use often. In a complex mixture of many different molecules, some molecules will be selectively attracted to each other on account of unique properties related to their electric charge, shape, and atomic composition. If you want to remove one specific molecule or type of molecule from a mixture, you can pour the mixture through a resin loaded with another molecule that attracts it. Your Favorite Molecule (YFM; or least favorite, if we’re talking about sulfites) will remain trapped in the resin while everything else in the mix falls right through.*

What the Üllo folk did was come up with a “food grade polymer” that uses this principle to trap sulfites and put it in this thingamajig that you can sit over your wine glass. Once all of the polymer molecules are loaded up with sulfite molecules they can’t bind to any more, which is why the little filter that sits in the Üllo cup is disposable. They probably needed to do a lot of tinkering to find precisely the right polymer, so kudos to them on that account.

There are two problems with this simple idea. The first is that it’s not perfect. Some of YFM will always miss being bound up and fall through. Üllo marketing deals with that by talking about “returning” wine to it’s “natural” state, and since yeast naturally produce some sulfites, that leaves them about 10 ppm (parts per million) wiggle room. If you’re one of those rare few with a bona fide sulfite problem, that probably isn’t enough to set you off, though individuals’ sensitivities vary.

The second problem is the converse of the first. Inevitably, some stuff other than the target molecule gets stuck on its way through the filter. Üllo is trying to turn this bug into a feature by noting that you’ll remove unwanted sediment as well as sulfites, though I’d hazard that very few people in the target audience for this product are drinking wines with unpleasant sediments in the first place. I’ve not tried Üllo, so I don’t know how wine tastes after being poured through, nor what besides the sulfites changes in its molecular profile. But no matter how good a job those smiling entrepreneurs did with their chemistry, the wine will sustain some collateral damage. Again, probably not a problem if you’re drinking a commercial wine product to have something to hold at a party, but an altogether different issue if you’re expecting to savor the winemaker-crafted nuance of something special.

Üllo is a clever idea: simple, obvious, the kind of thing that makes you wonder why no one’s thought of it before. It might be a great tool for the gluten-avoiding Yellow Tail-sipping crowd that will feel better knowing their wine is virtually sulfite-free. It may even be a real help to some of those very few people who want to drink sulfite-containing wine but can’t breathe when they do. My problem with it is precisely the same as with gluten-free products. Most people don’t need them. Some of those folk are fooled into thinking gluten-free products are healthier anyway (even though they’re often lower in fiber and sometimes higher in fat and sugar). And while some of them are fantastic, most aren’t, and you’re usually losing something else along the way.

*The point of this exercise is often that you want to recapture a purified version of Your Favorite Molecule (YFM), so separation columns are often designed to be reversible: if you pour a solution of something that binds to the resin even better than YFM, YFM will fall off and come out the other side. When I spent time in a biochem lab working on HIV proteins, we used this technique to isolate specific viral proteins so that we could subject them to more testing.

April 2017:  I’m no longer accepting comments on this post after an ongoing deluge (relatively speaking, I know) of comments on this post telling me that I’m not taking individual’s symptoms seriously. Please note that I’m not telling anyone that their symptoms aren’t real or that they shouldn’t do things that make them feel better. I am saying (in addition to observing the clever chemical principle at work here) is that the best evidence we have at present suggests that sulfite allergies are very rare, and that this product preys on the same notions at the heart of the gluten-free craze: that a molecule which causes a very few people extreme harm is also somehow something the rest of us should fear.

23 thoughts on “The simple chemistry behind removing wine sulfites

  1. Excellent article – it should be required reading for everyone who purchases wine. As a retail wine sales person, I get my share of customers in search of sulfite free wines, and it’s all I can do to keep from rolling my eyes and saying, “Yeah, and I’ll bet you’re color blind too, aren’t you?”

    • I’m colorblind, it affects 6% of the male population, it’s hardly rare….bad analogy, perhaps you should have used Gluten allergy as an example, that is rare, but hyped up.

      Oh also I have a sulfite sensitivity, which is also not that rare but there aren’t enough sulfites in wine to bother most people (fresh salsa and dried fruit oh yes!).

      But a lot of this stuff is scientifically illiterate people jumping on the chemophobe bandwagon for sure.

      • Agreed, Mark. Colorblindness is a great example of an issue that needs a lot more special consideration than it gets (I have several good friends who are colorblind, and the stories they tell demonstrate how true that statement is). And gluten “intolerance” is a great example of the opposite problem.

    • As someone from the holistic health field, sulfites are considered a dangerous additive in all foods, not just for their negative effect on those with true allergies, but because sulfites have been shown to be carcinogenic. This author comes off a little snotty to me. Also, as a 22 year gluten-free person, I can tell you I went from being diagnosed with everything from asthma to irritable bowel, until I finally found a dr. smart enough to suggest a gluten free diet. After 3 years of suffering and all kind of medication, within 3 weeks off gluten, I was totally off all medications and finally healthy. You might want to not be so quick to roll your eyes. It’s a real thing.

      • Patti, the point is that the people who actually need gluten-free/sulfite-free products are a minority, and that many people who seek out the products are doing so based off of a false perception or lack of knowledge. That’s not to say that there is no such thing as gluten intolerance, or people who react adversely to sulfites, no one is saying that. This article was written to bring awareness of a product that tries to convince the public that a major problem exists when there are truly only small percentage of people who really benefit from it. As someone in the healthcare field, you should know that following a gluten-free diet can have detrimental effects on your health if you really aren’t gluten-intolerant or need that specific diet, and that many people choose gluten-free products are doing so as part of a fad or from lack of knowledge.

  2. Oh for gods sake. I’m sick of people poo pooing the idea that people may get genuinely Ill from ingesting sulphites in wine. If I drink only a glass of normal [especially a cheap] wine, my list of problems is not asthma related. It includes,
    Tinnitus
    Raging thirst
    Splitting headache
    Blurred vision
    Heart palpitations/skips. Very scary
    Nausea
    Vertigo
    Shaking hands/tremors

    This is a real problem and will leave me unable to work for a day until it clears up. This gadget would be a great help to me.
    Educate yourself on this issue please. There is a lot of information out there.

    • Yes, Helen, there is a lot of information out there, and I guarantee you that I’m much better educated on the sulfite issue than most. I’d encourage you to better educate yourself on the issue before you go poo pooing me. I’m never going to dismiss anyone’s symptoms. If wine makes you sick, wine makes you sick. Don’t drink wine (and you have my sympathies, because that all sounds yucky). But we know from lots and lots of research that it’s almost certainly not the sulfites that are making you sick, so this gadget probably wouldn’t help you. You can check the primary scientific literature for yourself. You can also look here and here for two pieces my colleague Tom Mansell and I have written.

      • @szymanskiea Hi, do you have the source for those studies? as my wife is extremely sensitive to what we have been thinking to be sulfites. In fact she can eat a food and in 3 to 4 hours start to react and every time without fail we can find the sulfite preservative (220-229) in that food. Just recently I cooked a meal and she got sick, when I checked all of the ingredients I found it in the lemon juice. If we have been barking up the wrong tree, it would be great to know.

        Thanks

    • I have the same problem as Helen.. and it seems to be getting worse as I age. Even one sip of wine, organic or not, that contains sulphites makes the next day intolerable. A device that would allow me to drink wine and hard cider would be a very welcome purchase.

      I am not a wine connoisseur and don’t need to worry about the delicacy of flavor being altered slightly by using a filter.. I would just like to be able to share a glass of wine or cider socially when it comes my way.

      I was looking for a practical review and information from your article on the success of this new gadget… not an attitude if these reactions to sulphites are even valid.. I know my diet well and don’t react to much.. and therefore this very real and debilitating reaction to sulphites is very real and disheartening. I don’t appreciate your gentle put down on people who have developed food sensitivities..

    • Thank you – I also react to drinking wine with similar effects: great thirst, bad headache, palpitations, wheezing. Actually I don’t know if it is specifically sulphates that causes the problem (and yes, I have tried the dried apricot thing…). Organic wine is generally better. It hacks me off somewhat when people sound off about intolerances without suffering from them themselves. I haven’t read enough reviews of this product yet – but it could be very helpful for me. Rather expensive though. Waiting for more reviews before investing.

  3. if you knew a certain lady who loves to drink wine, but sneezes like a banshee when she drinks wine with sulfites, you would do everything in your power to make it stop.I bought her sulfite free wine, she did not sneeze afterward, but she said it was tasted like swill, and please don’t bring it again. She does not mind that she sneezes after drinking wine, but I will tell you, the rest of us do! 🙂

  4. This gadget sounds quite handy for someone like myself…who does not have an alergy to sulfiites but does have an issue with the sulfites do added to wine.
    I drank a glass or 2 of wine a wwek with no issues untill a couple of years ago. Thats when the headaches began manifrsting almost immediatly after just 1 glass. Someone suggested I try drinking an organic type wine made in small batches without the added sulphites used as a preservative. I did. No headache. If in occasion I do drink regular wine…headache But if I drink organic no sulphites added wine…no headache.
    So as for myself..I do not care how educated one is or is not about sulfires…I am educated enough by my own experiences to know that this gadget may be worth the investment! .

  5. Whatever I’m “allergic” or sensitive to in wine has gotten so bad that I have given it up completely. Talk about a bummer. It started about 5 years ago I think….maybe longer… and has gotten progressively worse over time, which leads me to believe it is some kind of an allergic reaction, since food or medication allergies can progress this way as well.

    I have looked into the sulphite theory because I found this to be mind boggling after being able to drink and enjoy any wine I wanted until then. I still have no idea what bothers me so much when I drink wine, but I am strongly considering at least trying this filter, to see if it helps to alleviate my symptoms. (Heart palpitations, irrational anxiety, sleeplessness, hot flashes with the heart palps and anxiety lasting 24 hours after consumption.)

    If not….at least I guess I’ll go back to craft beer, but it sure would be nice to have a few glasses of wine without issue again!

    • But Jolyn, how would you know what “worked” meant? A huge problem with this kind of tool is assessing function and defining “success.” It might remove sulfites, which could mean it works. It might or might not alleviate someone’s wine-related symptoms; is that could be the difference between “working” or not? Those two outcomes might be completely unrelated; moreover, one person’s report of whether it works might have nothing at all to do with your own experience, since we don’t know why wine-related symptoms happen and the placebo effect (not a bad thing, but a different mechanism) is probably contributing, too.

    • I have one of these from the Kickstarter campaign.

      So keeping the caveats in szymanskiea’s post firmly in mind, I have found there is in fact a quite noticeable difference (improvement) in flavour after passing wine through it. Specifically, it seems to remove bitter flavours, turning bad wine into passable, passable into quite good, etc. As for symptoms etc (and so by extension to what degree I think it’s removing sulphites, vs perhaps other components in the wine), I can’t really comment, as I’m not sure that was a huge issue for me in the first place.

      Only used it a couple of times so far, so more testing to be done (it wasn’t double blind, but I did try just the aeration aspect without the filter; which didn’t result in the same change).

      I’ll post again in a few months or so if this changes significantly, but initial impression at least is it was worth the money. Only slight downside is it has a fairly low flow rate through the filter, so it takes a little patience to pour a bottle through. But anyway if you have the money to spend on such things, and you like the look of the caraffe, I’d say go for it and see how you get on, don’t think you’ll regret it.

    • Jolyn,

      I recently purchased the Ullo and filters. I really like it. I pretty much always drink red wine, mainly zin, cab, and merlot. My typical price point is anywhere from $15-$40 a bottle. I had no preconceived notions about what it would or would not do just wanted to see if I noticed anything different and if I liked what I noticed. The system smooths out the flavor of the wine. It removes the “bite” that some of them have. Also, I noticed that I don’t have the mild congestion I used to get after a couple glasses of wine. I also had my husband and son (unbeknownst to them) try a “taste” test with and without and they both preferred the glass that was filtered saying that it was a much smoother taste and texture. I really do like the Ullo and plan to continue using it. Hope this response helps!

  6. The fuss over sulfites seems to center on asthma and headache symptoms. I was diagnosed (out of the blue, and after years of using them) with an allergy to sulfa-based antibiotics, and once that cropped up, I noticed severe bloating, gas, stomach cramps and diarrhea within a half hour of drinking wine, or eating any dried fruit treated with sulphur compounds to prevent browning, so there’s that. Now I’m one of those folks studiously reading labels and having to avoid so many things I used to enjoy!

  7. If I drink wine containing sulfites I am up much of the night with stomach cramps and diarrea which sometimes continues into the next day. I am also very tired the next day due to lack of sleep. I tried the Ullo fiter having decided I wouls have to give up wine. When I use the filter I do not have diarrea or stomach cramps… maybe there is an alternative explanation but neither I not my doctor knows what it is.

  8. Having sulfites listed on the label would be to comply with labelling laws, if the amount is over 10ppm SO2 it’s required to be on the label. Saying “no added” sulfites is misleading, wine naturally has sulfites as does vineagar, cider and other products. If you’re someone who reacts you’re taking a risk because there is no practical way to know the levels (a better practice would be to name the levels), the reaction is fast and while if it’s a true allergy it will respond to an epipen, if it’s a sensitivity epipens contain sulfites as a preservative, that will send you to the A&E cardiac waiting area.

    I suspect the rise in people reporting reactions could be to do with the popularity of cheap, young bottled wines, I wonder how many would previously have been packaged as cask wines, there’s the expectation you’re sidestepping nasty if you stick to bottles and I think manufacturers have altered their packaging to get away from the reputation cask wines have.

    You’d know a bad reaction if you saw it, better safe than sorry. I’ve had some severe reactions to sulfites over the years and it wasn’t until I landed in the allergy clinic I found out that’s what it was, for 20+ years I didn’t know what was making me sick and neither did any of the doctors I saw. Was it the food I had or the wine I had with it, was it food related at all? The reactions were too fast for it to be an over indulgence, within minutes, sometimes I’d have something and be fine, other times I’d have something and I wouldn’t and could not figure out what was doing it or why, turns out it wasn’t the food it was the preservative added to it and the accumulative dosage, a one off trace amount could pass without incident, a quick succession of them or a product with a high enough concentration I’d react. Some might get a headache, insomnia or feel a bit dry but for me a reaction is a trip to the hospital and I don’t know it’s coming till it happens, there’s no gradual build up to warn me it’s coming.

    The allergy clinic tested me blind for additives sending me home with numbered capsules as food challenges, which took some expaining when the ambulance showed up (“what did she eat?”), I don’t think they were expecting how badly I would react. I’ve never been asthmatic but I couldn’t breathe and my heart beat became irregular, the same thing that had been happening when I’d eaten some seafood products, sulfites had been used to preserve the colour in some of them but not in others misleading doctors to think I was allergic to seafood. Sulfites also sometimes show up in sausage meat, even though it’s illegal to add it some dodgy butchers do, so if you ask or react they aren’t about to own up to it.

    I miss drinking wine but for someone like me now I know no wine is a sure safe bet labelling or not, even decanting or adding food grade hydrogen peroxide does not guarantee a sulfite free wine and there is no real way to tell what the starting level was to begin with. Labelling wine as “contains sulfites” is like labelling flour “contains gluten” it’s just a part of the product.

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