‘The Lightning Rod Effect’: Sulfite labels scare US wine drinkers?

By Ben BOUCKLEY contact

- Last updated on GMT

Picture Credit: Philippe Put/Flickr
Picture Credit: Philippe Put/Flickr

Related tags: Wine

US wine drinkers who blame headaches on sulfites will pay a significant premium for bottles without them, according to a study hinting at access to a ‘substantial niche’ in the $32bn market.

Marco Costanigro, Christopher Appleby and Stephen Menke draw this conclusion in a study due for publication in the January issue of Food Quality and Preference.

They advise organic producers to emphasize non-use of sulfites to headache sufferers, but insist that non-organic producers can also hit ‘natural’ and ‘preservative free’ markets “without having to abide to the full, more costly organic certification protocol”​, subject to viable sulfite alternatives.

Added as Sulfur dioxide (S02) or in other forms, sulfites are commonly used (30-90ppm added during production) as an antioxidant and antimicrobial agent, and have been subject to mandatory labelling (under US Food and Drug Administration rules) since 1985.

Sulfites suffer bad press

1980s FDA-commissioned research suggests that sulfite-sensitive consumers represent around 1% of the US population, with reported symptoms stomach pain, breathing difficulties and skin rashes.

“Anecdotal evidence and articles in the popular press suggest that some consumers report experiencing headaches and migraines after consuming even small amounts of certain wines, particularly the red varieties,”​ Costanigro et al. write.

In March 2012 the team surveyed 223 consumers aged 21+ who shopped at a Northern Colorado liquor store – who were compensated with a $20 wine voucher – and found that 34% reported headaches after consuming moderate amounts of wine, with sulfites most often to blame.

63.16% who reported headaches blamed sulfites (from a randomized list of options asking for one or more choice) 57.89% dehydration, 32.89% blamed red wine and 20% blamed tannins.

Headache sufferers were prepared to pay an extra $1.23/bottle on average to avoid added sulfites.

Following the online questionnaire, a further multiple choice, online test guaged purchasing intentions on the basis of wine quality, price, and organic/non-sulfited production.

Warning label ‘catalyses’ negativity

Costanigro et al. ran statistical analyses on this data, and estimated that HSS sufferers are willing to pay $1.23 more for non-sulfited wines (though only 3.4% more likely to buy them) but non-HSS sufferers only $0.33.

Costanigro et al. were unable to find a medical study showing linking headaches to sulfites, and suggested that consumers may be ‘primed’ to blame sulfites for headaches due to adverse 1980s media attention.

“Another hypothesis, perhaps more fascinating, is that the ‘contains sulfites’ warning may itself induce or reinforce negative perceptions,”​ the team wrote.

“That is, the presence of a warning label may act as a catalyst for all negative experiences, a lightning rod effect where all attention is directed towards sulfites because of the mandatory labelling.”

Title:​ 'The Wine Headache: Consumer Perceptions of Sulfites and Willingness to Pay for Non-Sulfited Wines'

Authors:​ Costanigro, M., Appleby, C., Menke, S.

Source: Food Quality and Preference, ​Volume 31, January 2014. Published online ahead of print http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.foodqual.2013.08.002

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