NASA Data Helps Avoid Red Wine Headaches

Professor Richard Mathies, left, and scientist Christine Jayarajah, prepare a microchip instrument for wine analysis in a laboratory on the University of California at Berkeley campus in Berkeley, Calif., Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2007. The researchers are reporting development of a fast, inexpensive test suitable for home use that could help millions of people avoid headaches that may follow consumption of certain red wines, cheese, chocolate and other aged or fermented foods.(
AP
It's a problem that wine lovers have been whining about for years: Certain red wines can give the drinker a headache. But now help is on the way … from Mars.

Researchers at University of California, Berkeley, working with NASA-funded technology designed to look for chemical signs of extra-terrestrial life on the Red Planet have created a device they say can easily detect chemicals that many scientists believe can cause the dreaded "red wine headache."

The chemicals, called biogenic amines, occur naturally in a wide variety of aged, pickled and fermented foods prized by gourmet palates, including wine, chocolate, cheese, olives, nuts and cured meats.

Scientists have nominated several culprits for "red wine headache," including amines like tyramine and histamine, though no conclusions have been reached.

One of the technology's creators, Richard Mathies, director of the Center for Analytical Biotechnology at UC Berkeley, also happens to be a wine lover.

"What intrigued me is that I observed, with certain wines that I ingested I had a significant hypertensive response, which scared me a little bit," he told CBS station KPIX correspondent Manuel Ramos.

Some wines even led the professor to wake up in the middle of the night.

"That's when the light bulb went off and I realized I could use the Mars Organic Analyzer as a way of testing wines."

The prototype - the size of a small briefcase - uses a drop of wine to determine amine levels in five minutes, Mathies said.

The researchers found the highest amine levels in red wine and sake, and the lowest in beer. For now, the device only works with liquids.

The detector could prove useful to those with amine sensitivity, said Beverly McCabe, a clinical dietitian and co-author of "Handbook of Food-Drug Interactions," a book cited by the study for its descriptions of the effects of amines on the brain.

A startup company Mathies co-founded is working to create a device the size of a PDA so that users can take it along to a restaurant and bar where (along with bouquet and color) a wine's amines can be appraised.

Still, many specialists warn headache sufferers away from foods rich in amines, which can also trigger sudden episodes of high blood pressure, heart palpitations and elevated adrenaline levels.

People who take a class of antidepressants known as MAOI inhibitors, which block the body's ability to break down amines, are at special risk of dangerous blood pressure spikes from wine, cheese and other foods.

Mathies suggests the device could be used to put amine levels on wine labels.

But wine makers have resisted efforts to force them to label their bottles with a variety of information about nutrition and possible allergens, arguing it could disrupt the winemaking process.

"We're aware of the consumer demand for information. But that has to be tempered by the manner in which wine is made," said Wendell Lee, general counsel for the Wine Institute, a California industry trade group.

Mathies also wants to refine the detector so that it could be used as a handheld test for a wider variety of chemicals and contaminants in food, such as E. coli, to monitor food supply safety.

In the meantime, he believes diners worried about headaches and high blood pressure but unwilling to swear off wine altogether could at least use the detector to imbibe with less anxiety.

"Behavior is a key element of health, and behavior modification is really difficult," Mathies said. "Moving from having that glass of wine in the evening to not having that glass of wine is really hard to do."

News of this gourmand's use for space technology was described in an article published Thursday in the journal Analytical Chemistry.