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Answers to reader questions about sustainable, healthy, family living
Am I Allergic to Sulfites in Food?
By Wendy Priesnitz, Editor

avoiding food that contains sulfites
Photo Shutterstock

Q: I have been having some odd reactions to some foods and drinks (like dried fruits, wine, and gluten-free breads) and my husband thinks I might have a sulfite allergy. He says they’re sprayed on fruits and vegetables. What can you tell me about this?

A: Sulfites are a group of sulfur-based compounds that occur naturally in many foods and may be added to some foods and pharmaceuticals as a preservative. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates that one percent of the population is sensitive to sulfites and says that many of those people have asthma. Rather than being an allergy, sulfite sensitivity is a metabolic problem, in the same way that some people can’t digest milk products because they have a lactase deficiency. In the case of sulfite sensitivity, there may be a deficiency of an enzyme called sulfite oxidase, which breaks down sulfites with the help of the trace element molybdenum.

Reactions

Sulfites are not currently thought to be carcinogenic or mutagenic. Sensitivity can develop at any age, varies in intensity among different people, and can occur quite quickly after exposure. Most reactions are mild, although a minority of sensitive people experience seriously acute reactions ranging from breathing problems to kidney issues. Here are some of the main symptoms:

  • Digestive distress – from cramps, bloating, and diarrhea to nausea and vomiting
  • Fatigue – from feeling tired after eating to severe muscle fatigue, exhaustion, and low blood pressure
  • Difficulty concentrating (known as “brain fog”)
  • Mood swings
  • Breathing difficulties, wheezing, and asthma attacks
  • Candida fungus infections
  • Skin flushing, rashes, hives, and eczema
  • Heart palpations and rapid pulse
  • Cold and flu symptoms, nasal congestion, runny nose
  • Edema, including swelling of the face, lips, mouth, tongue, eyes, and extremities
  • The Feingold Association notes that sulfur-based additives have been found to trigger behavioral reactions in children, including temper tantrums and ADHD-like behavior

What to Avoid

Sulfites are used in the manufacture of many prepared foods, including baked goods (where it is used as a dough conditioner), crackers, soup mixes, jams (and anything containing gelatin or pectin jelling agents), soy protein products like tofu, canned and dehydrated vegetables, sauerkraut, pickles, relish, gravy mixes, dried fruit, dried herbs, potato chips (and most “junk food”), trail mix, beer, wine, apple cider, vegetable juices, bottled fruit juices (most particularly lemon and lime), salad dressings (and anything else containing wine vinegar), shredded coconut, tea, molasses, processed cheese foods, fresh or frozen shrimp and lobster, maraschino cherries, dehydrated or pre-cut potatoes, anything containing beet sugar, and anything made with high fructose corn syrup, cornstarch, or potato starch/flour. (Yes, those prepared gluten-free products containing wheat flour alternatives can be problematic!)

Some foods contain naturally-occurring sulfur and a few very sensitive individuals might react to them. (The body normally converts sulfur to sulfites, then sulfates, but that metabolic process doesn’t happen in sensitive people.) Those foods include garlic, onions, soy, peanuts, maple syrup, and vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, kale, and asparagus. Sulfur-based fugicides may also be used during transportation of table grapes.

In 1986, in the U.S.A., the FDA banned the use of sulfites on fresh fruits and vegetables in restaurant salad bars or supermarkets. At that time, the FDA also required wine, beer, and dried fruit containing sulfites at levels of 10 parts per million (ppm) or higher to have warning labels.

To aid in your label reading, there are six names used for sulfites: sulfur dioxide, sodium sulfite, sodium bisulfite, potassium bisulfite, sodium metabisulfite, and potassium metabisulfite.

However, in many instances, you won’t find any of these on labels because they are used in the preparation of the basic ingredients (such as flour, corn starch, etc.) rather than in the manufacture of the final product.

Sulfites can also be used to prevent rust and scale in boiler water that is used to steam food and even in the production of cellophane for food packaging. Although they’re not allowed in fresh meat, some absorbent packaging used to line supermarket styrofoam chicken trays has been found to contain sulfite preservatives.

If you enjoyed reading this article, you might also like these:

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The question mentions wine specifically. Because yeast produces sulfites during fermentation, sulfites are a natural by-product of the wine-making process. However, most winemakers add an additional small amount of sulfites as a preservative. Organic wine is not supposed to have added sulfites, but may still show them on the label due to their natural occurrence.

Sulfites are also in drugs: antiemetics (taken to prevent nausea), cardiovascular drugs, antibiotics, tranquilizers, intravenous muscle relaxants, analgesics, anesthetics, steroids, and – ironically – nebulized bronchodilator solutions that are used by asthmatics.

What To Do

There do not seem to be any tests that will effectively demonstrate a sulfite sensitivity. The only way to figure it out is to experiment with what you eat and drink. If you suspect a sulfite sensitivity, remove anything that might trigger a reaction (see our list of "what to avoid" potential problem foods above) until you feel normal, then try each food item one at a time to see if there is a reaction and to discover your personal tolerance level for certain types of food and drink.

Eating in restaurants can be a problem. You can, however, stick to basic dishes. For instance, opt for a baked potato over anything that could be processed. Ask for your salad without dressing. Don’t rely on wait staff to know whether or not a specific dish contains sulfites – even if they know what you’re talking about, they won’t necessarily have access to the correct answer.

If you’re purchasing unlabeled foods at a deli or a bulk food store, ask the store manager to check the ingredient list on the product’s original bulk packaging. And avoid any nuts, coconut, and dried fruit (see our "what to avoid" list above), as well as pre-made dips like guacamole.

Other than avoidance, there is no medical cure. However, some people with sulfite sensitivity find that supplementation with molybdenum (it is in many multi-vitamin formulations), vitamins B-12, B-6, and B-1, and the coenzyme tetrahydrofolate to be helpful. Mercury or lead detoxification can help as well.

Meanwhile you can take heart in knowing that you'll be overall healthier by avoiding all those supermarket processed foods and cooking from scratch!

Wendy Priesnitz is Natural Life’s editor. She has a sulfite sensitivity.

 

 

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