Natural wine is one of the hottest categories in booze right now, and the health claims are equally intoxicating: Drink natural wine, proponents say, and your headaches and hangovers will be less severe; you won’t feel as dehydrated; your gut health will improve.
“There’s a wide perception that when you’re drinking something cleaner, you’re drinking something healthier,” said Anita Oberholster, a grape and wine industry expert at the University of California, Davis. But, she said, “there’s no clear proof of that.”
So is natural wine actually better for you than its conventional counterparts, or is that just a bit of savvy marketing? We looked at some of natural wine’s most common health claims, and asked experts if they had any science to back them up.
What is natural wine, exactly?
Before assessing the health claims of natural wine, it’s important to agree on what we are talking about. Unlike products with the certified organic label, which must adhere to a clear and regulated set of federal requirements, natural wine is at best the result of a set of well-intentioned, voluntary production principles: Use organically farmed grapes; don’t add anything (like yeast) or modify anything (like acidity levels) during the fermentation process; don’t filter the final product (so as to retain its funky natural flavors and microbes); and add few to no sulfites (chemicals naturally produced during the fermentation process or added to preserve freshness or minimize oxidation).
At worst, natural wine is a marketing buzzword, capitalizing on a hugely popular cultural trend.
“It’s not like the term is regulated, so if a company tells you they’re selling natural wine, it’s impossible to know what they’re actually claiming,” Dr. Oberholster said.
Claim 1: Fewer pesticides
One recurring argument is that conventional wines may be loaded with toxic pesticides, while natural wines — grown using organic viticulture practices — are not.
The evidence: According to Dr. Oberholster, all wine sold in the United States — whether conventional or otherwise — can contain only infinitesimal amounts of pesticide residue. Anything higher than that, regulators say, and it would pose risks to human health. “The levels of pesticide allowed in wine are barely even detectable,” she said. “You wouldn’t be able to pick them up without very advanced instruments. The levels are way below anything that could impact human health.”
Of course, there’s no evidence now that such small exposures to pesticides could affect health. But it’s possible we might later learn that cumulative exposures over time could. “Research evolves,” Dr. Oberholster said, “and what we know to be true now may not always be true.”
Claim 2: Less severe hangovers
There’s a sense among aficionados that natural wine is less harsh or damaging to your overall constitution — “gentle on one’s system,” as Simon Woolf, a journalist and wine expert, said in a 2020 interview with Wine Scholar Guild.
Alice Feiring, a celebrated wine writer in New York City, said, “I don’t want to sound like other fanatics about this, but natural wine really feels better in your body,” though she was careful to note that this was not a scientifically backed claim.
Because natural wine tends to have a lower alcohol by volume (A.B.V.) level than conventional wines, some say, it’s easier to process the next day.
The evidence: Andrew Waterhouse, a professor emeritus and director of the Robert Mondavi Institute of Wine and Food Science at the University of California, Davis, said that natural wine was not going to ease your morning after.
“There is absolutely no proof that your natural wine hangover will be any less severe,” he said. Ms. Feiring agreed, noting she drinks “almost exclusively natural wine, and I have had more than my share of hangovers.”
“There’s no magic trick to avoiding them,” she continued. Ms. Feiring added that while some natural wines do have lower A.B.V.s, this is by no means a rule — and some natural wines have very high alcohol content. “Just go to your local wine shop and look at the labels if you want to clear up that common myth,” she said.
Claim 3: Fewer sulfites
Another prevalent claim is that both added and natural sulfites in conventional wines are harmful to human health. It’s true that in excess, sulfite exposure can cause a range of issues, including mild headaches and dehydration, and severe respiratory distress.
In the 1980s, it was widely reported that high levels of sulfites sprayed on salad bar vegetables to prevent them from wilting or browning was making a lot of people sick.
Conventional wine is legally allowed to contain 350 parts per million of sulfites, while natural wine generally caps sulfite levels at 100 parts per million — but they typically contain much less than that.
The evidence: Amarat Simonne, who also goes by Amy, is a professor of food safety at the University of Florida who has researched the effects of sulfites on human health. She said that unless you’re among the 2 to 3 percent of people who suffer from sulfite intolerance, exposure to the legally permitted sulfite levels in foods and drinks will not negatively affect your health.
“But you never know,” she added. “People’s tolerance to sulfites can fluctuate over time.”
Those with true sulfite intolerances, especially if they have asthma, could potentially face respiratory complications from exposure to the chemicals in conventional wine. More likely, the sulfite-intolerant may find themselves especially dehydrated and headachy after drinking nonnatural wine — symptoms that match a traditional hangover.
But Dr. Waterhouse’s assessment was more blunt: “I’m aware of no data indicating that wine with added sulfites has negative health outcomes for most people.”
Claim 4: Better gut health
Finally, some enthusiasts claim that because natural wine is rich in good bacteria, which aren’t filtered out or minimized during the wine-making process, natural wine can improve gut health.
The evidence: Several limited studies have cautiously indicated that red wine could have digestive benefits, but more research is needed. And none of these studies have differentiated between natural and conventional wines — nor should they, said David Mills, a molecular biologist and distinguished professor in the food science & technology and viticulture & enology departments at the University of California, Davis.
“There wouldn’t be any significant difference in microbial content whether it was so-called natural wine or not,” said Dr. Mills, who was skeptical of significant gut health benefits from drinking any type of wine. “The alcohol is going to kill most beneficial bacteria anyway, so it’s not like wine is ever going to have anywhere near the level of kimchi or yogurt.”
The bottom line
No matter how it’s produced, wine — or any alcoholic beverage, for that matter — can cause significant harm. The handful of studies that have suggested that moderate wine consumption may have some benefits, like improved heart health or lowered cholesterol, have been inconclusive at best. And the health risks — cancer, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease and dementia, to name a few — are numerous and well-documented.
Also, Dr. Mills said, there just isn’t a robust body of research on natural wine.
If you enjoy how natural wine tastes, or if you want to support sustainable farming, then go ahead and drink it. But just know that it may not be the superior health choice you may have thought it was.