Red wine headaches syndrome: Why is it still a problem?

If you are prone to headaches from red wine, would you drink wine made from genetically modified yeast if you knew you wouldn’t react to it? The problem of headaches from wine is one of the most frequent questions I get at lectures on wine and health. From an anti-aging point of view, evidence clearly points to red wine as a healthy habit. But if it gives you headaches, it just isn’t worth it. The good news is that we know what causes the headaches and how to make wine that doesn’t provoke them; the bad news is that almost no one is making wine that way.  The reasons behind this are enough to cause befuddle the brain and cause a headache all over again.

You can thank University of British Columbia Biotechnology Professor Hennie van Vuuren for developing the solution. A sufferer of the red wine syndrome himself, Dr. van Vuuren has been working on the solution for some 15 years. The problem stems from compounds called biogenic amines, which include histamine and some rather nasty sounding compounds called cadaverine and putrescine, among others. In addition to headaches, symptoms such as flushing, dirarrhea, and nausea can occur. Some biogenic amines are even considered carcinogenic.

Biogenic amines develop during a secondary fermentation process called malolactic, in which somewhat tart malic acid is converted to softer lactic acid. Most red wines are made this way, and some white wines such as chardonnay, and it generally improves the wine. The problem is that it can be tricky to control because it is catalyzed by bacteria, not the yeast that guides primary fermentation. The solution that Dr. van Vuuren developed was to splice the necessary gene from the bacteria into the yeast, thereby bypassing the need for bacterial fermentation altogether. But controversy abounds with genetically engineered foods, deserved or not.

The malolactic yeast, called ML01, has been in testing and limited use for nearly a decade now, but it is still not widely available or apparently much in demand. It has received FDA approval in the U.S. and Health Canada, and it is likely that many have consumed ML01 wines without knowing it (labeling laws regarding genetic modification are another controversy.) My take on it is that we are better of without biogenic amines in wines, and that genetic modification has been in use for hundreds of years through selective crossbreeding. Science has simply accelerated and refined the process, to our benefit.

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