New wine yeast could end allergic reactions

Wine lovers rejoice! A modified yeast created by the Wine Research Centre at UBC will eliminate neurotoxins in wine that are believed to cause painful allergic reactions, according to an aricle in

Most red wine drinkers have suffered the consequences of having too much of a good thing — a throbbing morning-after head ache. But you may be among the 33 per cent of the global population for whom even a small amount of red wine — and some whites, like Chardonnay — can result in an allergic reaction, ranging from head ache to watery eyes, flu-like symptoms or rash.

But here’s a reason to celebrate. The University of British Columbia’s Wine Research Centre has developed a genetically modified yeast that eliminates the problematic biogenic amines or bioamines in conventionally produced wines.

“I’m very keen on wine, I love wine, I’m really passionate about wine. One of the reasons why I started this is because I’m allergic to these bioamines myself. I used to get severe head aches when I drank red drinks and also from Chardonnays,” said research centre director Hennie van Vuuren.

Bioamines are neurotoxins that are produced during the malolactic fermentation process, when bacteria is used to convert malic acid into CO2 and lactic acid in order to lower the acidity in the wine. For one-third of the world population lacking the essential enzymes, bioamines are the compounds that literally cause headaches and other unpleasant side effects, van Vuuren explained.

He added that he had a student who was so sensitive that if she smelled the wine, and there were bioamines in it, her face would turn red.

He said that efforts to engineer a better kind of yeast for the fermentation process have been going on since the 1970’s, starting at the University of California, and at research institutions around the world, especially in France, a major wine producer.

The UBC Wine Research Centre first developed and patented the modified yeast 16 years ago and has been testing it ever since.

Since then, the yeast has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — the first one ever — followed by Health Canada and Environment Canada.

Wine Write Tony Aspler commented, “If the claims are true. . .this could be a major breakthrough in the international wine industry.”

George Soleas, senior vice-president of logistics and quality assurance for the Liquor Control Board of Ontario said “I think it’s a wonderful thing — if it works,” adding his wife has an allergy to red wines, sometimes known as Red Wine Headache Syndrome.

Soleas said the LCBO has done extensive testing on 1,500 different wines and found bioamines are highest in red wines — particularly pinot noirs — with much lower levels in white wines.

“People who drink white wines may now be able to switch to red wines or beer drinkers may be able to switch to red wines,” Soleas said.

Aspler and Soleas both said they had heard of California wine makers using the yeast though neither is aware of any Ontario companies who are following suit.

A grant from the Canada Foundation for Innovation allowed the centre to acquire the first micro-array equipment in the country to test the yeast and to ensure its safety, van Vuuren said.

The biggest obstacle to the widespread use of the yeast in wine-making is a widespread public concern about genetically-modified organisms.

For example, while South Africa has approved the use of the yeast there, it has asked wine makers not to use it because so much of their product is exported to Europe, where there is strong resistance to GMOs, van Vuuren said.

Van Vuuren said he is trying to get the yeast approved for use in Europe, where there’s an over-production of wine at a time when one-third of the world cannot drink red drink without negative consequences.