What's Really in Your Wine?

The health benefits of wine have been debated for some time now. But what isn't up for debate is America's love for wine. According to 2019 data from the Wine Institute, Americans drink almost three gallons of wine a year, which is up about one gallon per person in the last 20 years.

How much should you be concerned about what goes into your wine? (Image: Luis Alvarez/DigitalVision/GettyImages)

But with the increased awareness of food and drink additives, more and more people are asking "What's really in my wine?" Is it just grapes or is there something else to it? The answer lies in the ingredients.

Nutritional Information of Wine

First thing to know about what's in your wine is the nutritional breakdown. Depending on the wine — red or white, sweet or dry — one glass of wine (5 ounces) can range from 92 to 300 calories. But the average glass of wine contains about:

  • 125 calories
  • 4 grams of carbs (1 to 1.5 grams of sugar)
  • 0 grams of protein
  • 0 grams of fat

White wine tends to be slightly lower in calories in comparison to red, but red wine tends to have a slightly higher vitamin and mineral profile due to the skin of the grape not being removed in the fermenting process, whereas the skin is removed in white wine making.

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You may have also heard that hype around resveratrol — the much-lauded antioxidant that resides in the grape skin. "[It's] been shown to lower bad cholesterol and prevent blood clots, which in turn makes a heart attack less likely," says Schaub. "Another potential benefit of resveratrol in wine is that it acts as fuel for the healthy bacteria in our intestines." Thus promoting better gut health.

Ingredients Used to Make Wine

According to Todd White, CEO of Dry Farm Wines, there are two types of wines: natural and conventional. "Natural wines only contain organic fermented grape juice that is fermented with wild native yeast indigenous to the vineyard where the grapes are grown — no additives or manipulations," he says. "Conventional wine is usually industrially farmed (93 percent), meaning chemicals (pesticides) in farming may be present."

So what else is in your conventionally made bottle of vino? Danielle Schaub, RD, nutrition expert for Territory Foods, explains some of the other ingredients:

  • Tannins are antioxidants called polyphenols found in many plants, including grapes. Tannins are naturally present in all wines, but more of them can be added to create a dry, bitter taste.
  • Sulfites are sulfur-based compounds that naturally occur as a byproduct of yeast fermentation during the winemaking process. However, they're also sometimes added to wine to increase its shelf life. When wine is exposed to oxygen, sulfites keep it from oxidizing and turning into vinegar.
  • Other additives may include tartaric acid (to increase acidity), calcium carbonate (to decrease acidity) and sugary grape concentrate (for the yeast to increase the alcohol content)

At the end of wine production, a variety of other ingredients can be added, including egg whites, dairy products and gelatin. These bind to the unwanted particles and sink to the bottom where they can all be removed.

Sulfites and Other Additives

While we know what's in conventional wine, there's some debate over which ingredients and additives may be harmful and why. Among these, sulfites stir up the most controversy.

"It's really not a controversy actually," says Schaub. "It's kind of a public misperception." Since winemakers have to include "contains sulfites" on labels, this can be worrisome to the novice wine drinker, as it makes it sound like there's something we shouldn't be consuming, she says. "But it isn't damaging unless you have an allergy to sulfites, and that's why there is labeling for it."

The other thing that may be of concern are the pesticides used on the grapes grown for conventional wines, says Tom Beaton, co-founder of FitVine Wine. "Some wines also test high for arsenic, which is a poisonous element that can seep into soil when growing grapes," Beaton says.

This is why natural winemakers take certain measures to ensure none of that stuff makes it into their bottles. "We make sure to produce a clean bottle each time by uniquely and independently lab testing each bottle through a third-party lab, which tests for traces of mold, pesticides and arsenic," says Mark Warren, FitVine's other co-founder.

But there isn't any way to tell how common mold, pesticides and arsenic are in conventional bottles of wine, as there's no required testing in the U.S. There also isn't required labeling for certain other additives. "There's really no way to tell with the lack of studies and labeling," White says. "With no contents label, consumers have no idea what they are drinking."

So if you have a sulfite allergy or are concerned about unlabeled ingredients in your wine, purchasing from companies who specifically test for such ingredients — like FitVine and Dry Farm Wines — is the best way to go.

How Much Wine Should You Drink?

Even if you choose a "cleaner" brand of wine, you can still harm your health by over-indulging. After all, alcohol is still basically empty calories, and it's easy to consume too much when the vino starts flowing.

The American Heart Association's recommendation is two drinks for men and one drink for women a day. But keep in mind that one drink of wine is five ounces, and that may not seem like much to some. Practicing self-control and moderation will allow you to enjoy the benefits of a smooth glass of wine without negative side-effects.

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