Is Natural Wine Healthier Than Regular Wine? Experts Weigh In

Male inspects a glass of white wine outdoors
Natural wine enthusiasts tout various health claims, but experts say most health benefits lack sufficient evidence. Sue Barr/Getty Images
  • The natural wine movement has many proponents touting various health claims of the low-sulfite alternative to regular wine.
  • Natural winemaking benefits small producers and the surrounding environment, but experts say most health benefits lack sufficient evidence.
  • Some research shows that people with sulfite sensitivity react to certain wines, but more studies are needed.
  • Whether you choose natural or regular wine, moderation is recommended for overall health.

From orange to glou-glou, piquette to pét nat, organic, biodynamic, unfiltered, and zero-zero, natural wines are much more than a low-sulfite alternative to conventional wine.

Natural wine is not a new trend or buzzword despite its recent rise in popularity. Humans have been fermenting grapes without additives for millennia.

Like regular wine, natural wine is grown wherever conditions are ripe: in the heart of the Mediterranean and around the world in similar hospitable microclimates.

The funk, flavor, and juiciness factor of natural wine is unique to the terroir (soil) in which its grapevines were grown and harvested. 

The crisp whites of Slovenia’s Vipava Valley take on the minerality of surrounding limestone mountains. Just south of Barcelona in Priorat, Spain, there are bold, intense reds that are infused with slate absorbed by roots that grow through layers of rock in this arid, mountainous region.

Juicy reds from France’s famously picturesque Loire Valley or the rolling hills of Tuscany, meanwhile, might be more fruit-forward and hit the nose with herbs and spice.

Natural wine is grown using little to no additives, such as sulfites, and without pesticides, herbicides, or other chemicals. This low-intervention approach is usually rooted in traditional winemaking styles.

Is natural wine actually healthier for you? It depends on who you ask.

Many natural wine enthusiasts believe this to be true, but experts say most purported health claims are unsubstantiated by research.

“The alcohol industry has been implicated in the propagation of deceptive narratives asserting the health benefits of alcohol consumption,” said Kesley Costa, a registered dietitian nutritionist and nutrition consultant for the National Coalition on Healthcare.

“The natural wine movement has gained popularity in recent years as a perceived healthier and more wholesome alternative to conventional wines. However, this perception is not supported by scientific evidence,” she told Healthline.

Whether you’re a skeptic, proponent, or natural wine curious, here’s what you should know.

Natural wine vs. regular wine: What’s the difference? 

Compared to large-scale conventional wine manufacturing, natural wine is produced on smaller-scale, sustainable vineyards to protect local grapes.

Natural wine can be organic or biodynamic and many small wine producers are natural wine producers by default.

During the natural winemaking process, nothing is added or removed. Conventional wines, on the other hand, use dozens of additives to make them more appealing to the broader population.

Winemaker Georges Kalligeros of the natural wine importer D-I Wine said natural wine offers a healthier alternative to conventional wine because it uses organically and sustainably farmed grapes. Kalligeros noted the benefits to winemakers and the surrounding environment, specifically.

“While common principles of organic viticulture forbid synthetic phytosanitary products, conventional viticulture allows hundreds of plant production products (PPPs), including pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides,” he told Healthline.

“The PPPs used in conventional viticulture are harmful to winemakers, viticulture workers, and populations living in the vicinity of vineyards,” he added.

Kalligeros notes that heavy pesticide use in viticulture is linked to higher rates of health conditions among vineyard workers, including:

Is natural wine good for health?

Experts say many health claims about natural wine are anecdotal and lack sufficient evidence. 

Still, some people may benefit from choosing natural over conventional, such as those sensitive to additives like sulfites.

“Natural winemaking is not only about avoiding pesticides in the farming of the vines but also about eschewing additives during the winemaking process itself,” Kalligeros said. 

“Conventional wine can contain up to 49 additives, as permitted by the [European Union], and 70 or more in the USA. Organic wines in the EU (which do not use pesticides in farming) also allow the use of 35 additives during vinification. This is what ultimately distinguishes natural wine: no additives are allowed, with the exception, in some cases, of a minimal dose of sulfur dioxide (SO2),” he noted.

Wine writer Alice Fiering of The Fiering Line newsletter said wines made from organic viticulture, 100% grapes, and, ideally, 20 parts per million (p)pm of added sulfites (as opposed to 100 ppm or more) are “healthier by default for the farmer and the drinker.”

“Many conventional wines have unstudied allergens, though they are known,” Fiering told Healthline.

“Some of these are enzymes derived from eggs (lysozine), tannins, and so forth. But then, there is velcorin (Dimethyl dicarbonate), which in conventional winemaking is widely used as a yeast inhibitor to prevent brettanomyces [which may cause spoilage], that ‘sheepy taste’ that some wines can have,” she explained.

However, all wine contains some amount of sugar, and drinking too much could lead to chronic conditions like heart disease as well as alcohol misuse.

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared in January 2023 that no amount of alcohol is considered safe.

If you choose to enjoy wine responsibly, aim to follow current recommendations for moderate alcohol consumption: 1 drink per day or less for females and 2 drinks a day or less for males.

“Wine and alcohol were certainly one of the earliest medicines, though, like any medicine, they will harm you if you abuse [them],” Fiering said.

Does natural wine have less sulfites?

Sulfites are chemical compounds occurring naturally in foods like dried fruits and cereals and are added to other foods and beverages as a preservative and to lock in color.

Many people report adverse reactions to sulfites found in food and wine. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates that about 1 in 100 people in the U.S. are sulfite-sensitive.

Some studies have examined allergic reactions to sulfites in alcoholic beverages like wine. However, more research on getting “sulfite headaches” from wine is still needed.

“Interestingly, commonly consumed foods like dried fruit, soy sauce, and pickles, which have higher sulfite content than red wine, do not seem to induce similar reactions,” Costa noted. 

“White wine has more sulfites than red, yet people often report headaches after red wine.”

Costa noted sulfite sensitivity also occurs after drinking white wine, especially in those with asthma, leading to adverse reactions

“On the other hand, responses to histamine and other naturally occurring substances are more common after drinking red wine,” she said.

Dr. Andrew Waterhouse, PhD, a wine chemist and professor emeritus at the University of California, Davis, explained that some people could be more susceptible to a reaction from sulfites due to “sulfite oxidase deficiency,” a genetic predisposition hindering the body’s ability to break down the compound.

However, sulfite oxidase deficiency is uncommon. Waterhouse explained that most humans produce between 500 and 1000 milligrams of sulfites daily, which the body eliminates with the enzyme sulfite oxidase.

“I have only found one paper that documents a headache reaction to sulfites, and that was with wines that had very high levels,” he told Healthline. “In a normal glass of wine, there would be 10 to 20 mg of sulfites and that is unlikely to cause a problem.”

Does natural wine give you a hangover?

Sulfites, histamines, and tannins have been anecdotally linked to wine headaches and hangovers. 

Depending on how much you drink, choosing natural wine over conventional may not make much difference in how you feel the next day.

But if you’re prone to wine headaches, you may want to switch from red to white. 

Waterhouse led a recent study that looked at a compound in red wine that could be the source of headaches: quercetin, a type of flavanol in red wine that disrupts the alcohol metabolizing process, which could trigger a headache in some people.

The next step in the research, Waterhouse shared, will be to test quercetin’s mechanism in a human clinical trial.

“Once we can test out our theory in a clinical trial, we may be able to clarify why natural wines seem to lead to fewer headaches,” he told Healthline. 

For now, opting for wines at a lower price point could help prevent wine headaches, Waterhouse said, regardless of whether they’re natural or conventional.

“Based on our theory about quercetin, we can suggest that less expensive wines may lead to fewer headaches,” he explained.

“This is because less expensive grapes are grown on larger vines that shade the fruit more. Grapes produce quercetin in response to sunlight, so it has been shown that shaded grapes have substantially less quercetin.”

Waterhouse noted that white wines contain almost no quercetin, offering an alternative for those who get red wine headaches.  

“Some people are clearly more susceptible than others,” Waterhouse said.

Is natural wine lower in alcohol?

Natural wines tend to be lower in alcohol by volume (ABV). The body may also metabolize the alcohol in natural wines slower compared to conventional wines.

A 2019 study found that alcohol in natural wines is metabolized slower, as shown by lower blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels 20 and 40 minutes after consumption. 

“The peak blood alcohol response to drinking natural wine was also lower than the peak response to drinking conventional wine,” Fiering explained.  

“This supports the hypothesis that natural and conventional wines are metabolized differently.”

Costa argued that lower BAC levels are not a significant health claim but noted some benefits to metabolizing alcohol slower.

“Rising BAC escalates both the impacts of alcohol and related risks,” she said. “Minor BAC increases can lead to impaired motor skills, nausea, and poor judgment, potentially resulting in injuries, violence, or other unsafe behavior. Extremely high BAC can cause memory blackouts, unconsciousness, or even death.”

Costa said metabolizing alcohol slower could also lead to lower overall alcohol intake. 

“When consuming conventional wine, higher BAC levels may lead individuals to drink more alcohol, quickly reaching intoxication and possibly increasing the risk of adverse health outcomes,” Costa explained.

“However, it’s essential to note that the rate of alcohol metabolism is largely determined by genetics and other individual factors, so relying on natural wine for slower metabolization may not be a reliable strategy for everyone. Alcohol consumption, regardless of the type of wine consumed, still has harmful effects on the body.”

Is natural wine good for gut health?

Some people say natural wine promotes gut health because of the natural fermentation process, but experts are unsure whether this claim has any merit.

“There is live yeast and bacteria in natural wine,” Waterhouse said, noting the taste of the wine evolves because of the action of these microbes.

“You can usually see some cloudiness in the bottle, which is a clue that they are there,” he explained. “However, the amount of bacteria is very small compared to yogurt or pickles. That is because the wine is ‘dry,’ meaning that all the sugar is gone, so there is very little for the bacteria to consume.”

As a result, the wine cannot support a large population of bacteria, Waterhouse noted.

Costa cited a 2019 study showing that people who drank red wine had more gut microbiome diversity than non-red wine drinkers.

Another recent meta-analysis suggests that alcohol consumption can disrupt the gut microbiome, which could lead to various health issues.

This study, Costa noted, underscores that any “potential adverse effects of alcohol on gut health often outweigh any potential benefits.”

“From a nutritional standpoint, it is unlikely that natural or conventional wine provides any significant benefits for gut health,” Costa said.

Takeaway

Natural wine production benefits sustainable farming, small producers, and the surrounding environment, but the purported health benefits require further investigation.

“While natural wine may offer some benefits regarding lower chemical additives and less environmental impact, it is not a significantly healthier or safer option than conventional wines,” Costa said.

Therefore, to truly “drink to your health,” moderation is recommended. For some people, particularly those with underlying conditions, abstaining from alcohol may be best.

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