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Is Headache-Free Wine Too Good to Be True?

If a genie granted me three wishes, one of them might be for a wine that wouldn't give me a migraine. For those of you fortunate enough to have never had a migraine, it feels a little like having a dentist drill pierce your skull from base to forehead. The fact that drinking wine, especially red wi...

Glass of migraine-inducing (or not!) red wine. Courtesy of Flickr user ralphunden


If a genie granted me three wishes, one of them might be for a wine that wouldn't give me a migraine. For those of you fortunate enough to have never had a migraine, it feels a little like having a dentist drill pierce your skull from base to forehead. The fact that drinking wine, especially red wine, has about a 50-50 chance of making my head feel that way has put a bit of a damper on my oenophilia. Hence my wish.

The genie in this case is Hennie van Vuuren, a researcher at the University of British Columbia's Wine Research Center. He has figured out how to genetically alter yeast to remove the headache-inducing properties of red wine and many white wines. As James McWilliams at the Atlantic Food Channel  reports, the genetically modified (GM) yeast, called ML01, which became commercially available in 2006, converts malic acid to lactic acid, eliminating compounds called biogenic amines that can cause headaches and allergies.

It sounds great, but there's always a catch with those wily genies (at least the ones in jokes). In this case, the problem is that many people oppose genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Among the concerns are that GMOs could have unintended consequences for human health, including allergic reactions and the potential for transfer of antibiotic-resistant genes from foods to people. Another worry is that GMOs could cause a decrease in biodiversity. The information service ProQuest has an explanation of some of the issues surrounding GMOs.

In a  commentary in the Napa Valley Register around the time the yeast became available, Erica Martenson argued that the FDA's designation of ML01 as GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) was faulty. She asserted that the GM yeast could contaminate the wine yeast of neighboring wineries through the air, waste or water runoff.

GMOs are already in our food supply, and unlike in Europe, United States labeling laws don't require producers to list the presence of GM ingredients. This is a cause for concern for American vintners, Martenson writes, because GMO-averse consumers in Europe and elsewhere may avoid U.S. wines altogether.

Rather than banning GM yeast, as some countries have done, McWilliams proposes that vintners using ML01 should voluntarily label their wines as genetically modified to reduce the chance of headaches. He contends that many consumers would consider the benefit to outweigh the potential risk.

As much as I share some of the concerns over GMOs, I have to admit, one of those consumers would probably be me.
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About Lisa Bramen
Lisa Bramen

Lisa Bramen was a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.com's Food and Think blog. She is based in northern New York and is also an associate editor at Adirondack Life magazine.

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