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Sipping without sneezing? Scientists thwart wine allergies

Christi Foist doesn’t drink a lot of wine, but when she does, it’s not pretty.

“I find that if I have one to two glasses of wine, my sinuses will get stuffed up,” says the 32-year-old web editor, who lives in the San Francisco area. “And if I don’t drink enough water, I’ll get the headache. I think it must be the sulfites or something else.”

Turns out, Foist is allergic to wine, along with an estimated 500 million other people -- about 8 percent of the world's population -- who can’t sip vino without suffering symptoms of a bad cold.

Sulfites have long been known to cause sniffles, sneezes, headaches, skin rashes and/or breathing difficulties in about 1 percent of that group, but, until now, the trigger for the other 7 percent has been chalked up only to “something else.”

But thanks to new research out of the University of Southern Denmark, scientists now believe they’ve identified a potential culprit: glycoproteins.

Those are the sugar-coated proteins that develop during the grape fermentation process. They’re also the molecules that trigger allergic reactions to substances like dust mites, ragweed and latex.

“We have hypothesized that there could be a link between protein glycosylation and allergenic response, but more clinical data are necessary to prove it,” says Dr. Giuseppe Palmisano, a molecular biologist at the University of Southern Denmark and lead author of a new study recently published in the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Proteome Research.

“When we started the experiments, we wanted to identify the glycoproteins present in wine to understand more about oenological problems like haze formation and aroma changes, but the results led us to think about another possible implication of these glycoproteins.”

In a nutshell, Palmisano and his colleagues analyzed a bottle of Italian chardonnay and discovered 28 different glycoproteins. Upon further analysis, they realized that some of the grape glycoproteins were strikingly similar to other known allergens.

What does this mean for people who sneeze and sniffle every time they sip?

Well, Palmisano said researchers are working to map out a complete “molecular picture” of wine components, the better to understand which tiny particles deserve focus.

“If these molecules are proven to be responsible for allergy in wine, then the winemakers will have a target to remove them,” he explained.

In other words, hypoallergenic wine may be coming to a glass near you.

No more stuffy noses. No more skin rashes. No more headaches.

Unless, of course, you drink too much.

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