A family member recently asked me, What's the connection between allergic reactions to wine and histamine levels in wine? She, like many people, abstains from drinking wine because it has resulted in adverse effects in the past. The answer to the question is both simple and complicated: If you are allergic to histamine, then you should avoid drinking some wines, because some wines contain higher amounts of histamine. Before I go into detail, let's get to the good news: Not all wines contain high levels of histamine. This means that some wines are ok to drink, even if you are allergic to histamine. More on that below.
The reason that the histamine in wine is such a tricky, abstract concept is that it is very hard to accurately measure, unless you have a R-Biopharm kit or Microplate Strip Washer. *Blink* *Blink* Yeah, we're talking about photons and neutrons here folks. To give you an unhelpful definition used by biologists: Histamine is an endogenous compound that reacts poorly with H1 and H2 receptors.
What this means is that histamine causes adverse effects in the areas of the body where H1 and H2 receptors are located, particularly the head and the stomach. So, if you have a food allergy to histamine, you will get headaches and stomachaches from some wine. More specifically, symptoms include headaches, nausea, abdominal cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, hypotension, facial flushing, rash, edema and localized inflammation. If you experience one of these effects, there's a small chance that you are allergic to histamine. However, the number of people who are actually allergic to histamine is much lower than the number of people who believe that they are allergic to histamine. More on that in a minute.
So, can a person with an allergy to histamine drink wine? The answer is yes. Here's the good news: If you want to drink wine and have a food allergy to histamine, you might want to try sticking to white wines that do not undergo malolactic fermentation. White wines have far less histamine that red. Grapes have some histamine in them already, and even more histamine is created during the fermentation process, and many enologists believe that malolactic fermentation in particular creates a lot of histamine. Individual winemakers make their own decisions about when to employ malolactic fermentation, but, in general, very few white wines undergo malolactic fermentation, the exception being chardonnay, particularly those made in California. So go out and grab a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc from the Malborough region, or a Soave from Italy. White wine is a very safe bet for people who are allergic to histamine.
Further, it's worth noting that allergies can be treated. Taking allergy medicine, specifically an antihistamine, before drinking wine might cancel the negative effects. Make sure to take something that doesn't interfere with alcohol.
But are you really allergic to histamine? The facts suggest not. The infamous "red-wine headache" is a real phenomenon whose cause is still unknown. Originally, sulfites were blamed for headaches associated with red wine, and so every bottle of wine sold in America bears the Contains Sulfites notice. This myth was debunked. Next, histamine was blamed, but the result of a recent study, in which people were given drinks spiked with histamine, shows no connection.
Since many foods include histamine (many of which contain much higher levels than red wine) you might be able to determine if you are allergic to histamine by analyzing what you eat. Do you experience adverse effects when eating aged cheese, particularly blue cheese and Parmesan? What about fish, spinach, and eggplant? If not, there's a good chance that you are not allergic to histamine. This means that you suffer from the red-wine headache, more on which can be read here.
Below are a few more interesting facts regarding histamine:
"Much anecdotal evidence, which forms the basis of the many articles and comments in the media, points to histamine as the ‘culprit’ in wine causing headache and other adverse reactions. While it is accepted that the excessive consumption of alcohol will cause adverse reactions, research, however, clearly demonstrates that histamine is a minor constituent of wine and that there is no relationship between its concentration in wine and histamine mediated adverse reactions in either healthy tolerant or wine intolerant consumers." From a 2008 study done by Alcohol in Moderation (AIM)
"Some countries set limits to the amounts of histamine: Switzerland recommends 10 mg/L as a maximal level, Germany recommends 2 mg/L, while Belgium and France recommend 5 mg/L and 8 mg/ml respectively."
"High levels of histamine are considered to be an early sign of decomposition."
"Histamine is considered to be an allergen and a causative agent for headaches. While on average histamine in wine is 5.7 ppm and 3.4 ppm for red and white wine respectively, an extremely low histamine content is a desirable characteristic."
"There is a possible relationship between high amine content and the quality of the grape used, as well as the hygienic or sanitary conditions prevalent during the wine making process"
From a 2006 study by BioTek Instruments, Inc.