I may edit this post over time as I continue to research sulfites, but I wanted to get this out there as soon as possible to the folks that may need the information. If you have any related information, I’d love to hear it.
What are sulfites?
Sulfites are inorganic salts that have antioxidant and preservative properties. Many compounds capable of producing sulfite, called sulfiting agents, have been used as food additives since antiquity to help prevent enzymatic and nonenzymatic browning; control growth of microorganisms; act as bleaching agents, antioxidants, or reducing agents; and carry out various other technical functions (Sapers, 1993; Taylor, et al., 1986). Examples of sulfiting agents include sulfur dioxide, sodium sulfate, sodium and potassium bisulfites, and metabisulfites. Specifically, sulfites are used on fruits and vegetable to prevent unpleasant browning; on shrimp and lobster to prevent melanosis, or “black spot”; in wines to discourage bacterial growth; in dough as a conditioner; and to bleach certain food starches and cherries. In addition, sulfites are used in pharmaceuticals to maintain the stability and potency of some medications (Knodel, 1997; Papazian, 1996).
What’s the problem with sulfites?
The University of Florida IFAS Extention put together an excellent article citing many sources. The sources often contradict each other which is no fault of U of F, and I appreciate their including as much information as possible, even when the facts within were at odds. Please see the entire article at: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/fy731.
“Sulfites occur naturally in some foods and beverages as a result of fermentation, such as in beer and wine. As a food additive, sulfites have been used since 1664 and have been approved for use in the United States since the 1800s (Lester, 1995). With such a history of use, sulfites have been generally regarded as safe (GRAS) by the FDA, however it is suspected that a small percentage of the population is sensitive to sulfites. This sensitivity can cause a wide range of reactions ranging from mild to severe.” (MY NOTE: Since when is 1% considered a small number? Especially when you are talking about the total population of humans?!)
“Sensitivity to sulfites can develop at any time during a person’s lifespan, with some initial reactions not showing up until a person has reached their forties or fifties.”
(MY NOTE: Yep, that’s me. I was 46 when I acquired this “sensitivity”.)
“The manifestations of sulfite sensitivity include a large array of dermatological, pulmonary, gastrointestinal, and cardiovascular symptoms. Asthmatics that are steroid-dependent or have a great degree of airway hyperreactivity may be at an increased risk of having a reaction to a sulfite containing food (Lester, 1995). Varying degrees of bronchospasm, angiodema, urticaria, nausea, abdominal cramping, and diarrhea are commonly reported (Knodel, 1997). Adverse reactions to sulfites in nonasthmatics are extremely rare.”
(MY NOTE: Another source says that 1% of the population has some type of sulfite reactivity, but of that group only 5% have asthma. That would mean that the nonasthmatic adverse reactions are not rare at all. This is not to downplay asthmatic responses…just to show that the sources on this topic contradict themselves, and don’t give me a good feeling at all that anyone knows the facts for sure on this issue Is the 1% of people with sulfite reactions, across the board? Diagnosed, or total? Is the number growing as our current generation consumes more preservatives than ever before in history? Does Is the 1% spread out over all ages? Are kids (and elderly or ill) affected more often and more severely than the same amount in a healthy adult? How many kids are misdiagnosed with other health and/or behavioral issues when sulfites are the cause? (How do YOU act when you don’t feel well?) We are allowing preservatives everywhere, from their breakfast cereal to their school lunches, to their PB&J, and home again to their homemade spaghetti dinner, even in hospitals. The asthmatic response is a huge issue. How many kids (or adults) do we think have asthma, when really they have a sulfite allergy/sensitivity? They are on medications for all of their developmental lives for a condition that they were NOT born with (asthma), but one that we are inducing on them (sulfite toxicity). There is a significant population of people that are told they have asthma, that if we took out preservatives from their diet, they would NOT have asthma anymore. Think of the wasted doctor bills, needless medications, the number of ER scares, and worse, deaths!) Extrapolate that to the more obscure issues of the non-asthmatic reactions. How many people are not truly allergic to shellfish, but to sulfites. Or any number of the other foods commonly preserved. My doctor thougth I was severely allergic to corn. When in reality I was severely reacting to corn starch (sulfites). How many people have hives/rashes from unknown causes, or think they have IBS, Crones, GERD, small intestine bacterial overgrowth, etc., etc., etc.)
“Although literature lists a range of figures as to what percent of the population is affected, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates that one out of a hundred people is sulfite-sensitive, and of that group 5% have asthma. Another source states that 5% of asthmatics are sulfite sensitive, compared to only 1% of the nonasthmatic population (Knodel, 1997), while another source estimates that up to 500,000 (or less than .05% of the population) sulfite-sensitive individuals live in the United States (Lester, 1995).” (MY NOTE: Hmm, sounds like we don’t really know what’s going on with sufites. Maybe we shouldn’t be putting in our food. And equally as bad, in our tap water!)
“Symptoms of sulfite intolerance can occur within 5 minutes following parenteral exposure and within 15-30 minutes following oral exposure. Sensitive individuals vary in their degree of intolerance towards sulfites, with each having a specific threshold of exposure needed to elicit a reaction (Knodel, 1997). While the majority of reactions are mild, severe nonspecific signs and symptoms do occur on occasion. Although the precise mechanisms of the sensitivity responses to sulfites have not been completely elucidated, three have been implicated: inhalation of sulfur dioxide (SO2) generated in the stomach proceeding ingestion of sulfite-containing foods or beverages; deficiency in a mitochondrial enzyme; or an IgE-mediated immune response (Lester, 1995).” Source: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/fy731 (MY NOTE: I get a flu-like reaction within about 10 minutes, and I’m down for the rest of the day and overnight. I get nausea, clammy, fever, dizzy, heart palpitations, intestinal distress, etc. It’s a lot like when I get ‘glutened’, except to a lesser degree, and so far I have not vomited from it. Perhaps that will come? Along with this reaction is a lingering severe anxiety filled depression. Now that I can identify and limit accidental sulfite reactions, the depression goes away in a day or two as the sulfites clear from my body.)
Where will we find sulfites?
When I was diagnosed as having Celiac Disease and struggling to figure out the gluten free diet, I relied heavily on gluten free processed convenience foods. I thought they were “healthy” processed foods. As it turns out they were not. I ate several gluten free granola type bars each day. Lara Bars, Kind Bars, etc. All contained dried fruits and nuts (heavily preserved). As well as gluten free breads and cookies, baking mixes, pastas, etc. All with heavily preserved white flours like tapioca, corn and potato starches. These were my new gluten free “safe foods”, which I am convinced, have ended up making me very sick due to the heavy sulfite load.
I want to share what I have learned about where sulfites are lurking.
NAMES FOR SULFITE added as a preservative – watch for on labeling
- Sodium Sulfite (Na2SO3)
- Sodium Bisulfite (NaHSO3)
- Sodium Metabisulfite (Na2S2O5)
- Sulfur Dioxide Gas (SO2)
- Potassium Metabisultfite
- Calcium Sulfite
- Potassium Bisulfite
- Calcium and Bisulfite
Foods with added sulfites: (Unless labeled as organic)
|FDA GUIDE TO FOODS AND DRUGS WITH SULFITES
|The following foods and drugs MAY contain sulfites, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Remember to check the product label.
||Type of Food
||Beer, cocktail mixes, wine, and wine coolers
||Cookies, crackers, mixes with dried fruits or vegetables, pie crust, pizza crust, quiche crust, and flour tortillas
||Dried citrus fruit beverage mixes
|Condiments and Relishes
||Horseradish, onion and pickle relishes, pickles, olives, salad dressing mixes, and wine vinegar
|Confections and Frostings
||Brown, raw, powdered or white sugar derived from sugar beets
|Modified Dairy Products
||Filled milk (a specially prepared skim milk in which vegetable oils, rather than animal fats, are added to increase its fat content)
||Antiemetics (taken to prevent nausea), cardiovascular drugs, antibiotics, tranquilizers, intravenous muscle relaxants, analgesics (painkillers), anesthetics, steroids and nebulized bronchodilator solutions (used for treatment of asthma)
|Fish and Shellfish
||Canned clams; fresh, frozen, canned, or dried shrimp; frozen lobster; scallops; dried cod
|Fresh Fruit and Vegetables
||Sulfite use banned (except for fresh potatoes)
|Gelatins, Puddings, and Fillings
||Fruit fillings, flavored and unflavored gelatin, and pectin jelling agents
|Grain Products and Pastas
||Cornstarch, modified food starch, spinach pasta, gravies, hominy, breadings, batters, noodle/rice mixes
|Jams and Jellies
||Jams and jellies
|Nuts and Nut Products
|Plant Protein Products
||Canned, bottled, or frozen fruit juices (including lemon, lime, grape, and apple); dried fruit; canned, bottled, or frozen dietetic fruit or fruit juices; maraschino cherries and glazed fruit
||Vegetable juice, canned vegetables (including potatoes), pickled vegetables (including sauerkraut), dried vegetables, instant mashed potatoes, frozen potatoes, potato salad
||Dried fruit snacks, trail mixes, filled crackers
|Soups and Soup Mixes
||Canned seafood soups, dried soup mixes
|Sweet Sauces, Toppings
||Corn syrup, maple syrup, fruit toppings, and high-fructose syrups such as corn syrup and pancake syrup
||Instant tea, liquid tea concentrates
- This document is FCS8787, one of a series of the Family Youth and Community Sciences Department, F/IFAS Extension. Original publication date April 2005. Reviewed June 2014. Visit the EDIS website athttp://edis.ifas.ufl.edu.
- Paul Grotheer, professor; Maurice Marshall, Ph.D., professor, Food Science and Human Nutrition; Amy Simonne, Ph.D., assistant professor, Family, Youth and Community Sciences; reviewed by Ronald H. Schmidt, Ph.D., professor, Food Science and Human Nutrition Department, and Mary Keith, Ph.D., extension agent IV, Family and Consumer Sciences, UF/IFAS Extension, Gainesville, FL 32611. Source: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/fy731
Here are my personal notes in addition to the above list (FDA):
- Coconut – dried coconut, used for baking and in candy, is heavily preserved. I buy organic dried/shredded coconut from Nuts.com.
- Processed maple syrup products.
- Most non organic flours and starches in the USA; including tapioca, potato starch and corn starch, and baking powder; and products made from these.
- Any wet processed corn product – including corn starch, high fructose corn syrup and some corn flours.
- Granulated and confectioner’s (powdered) sugar – beet sugar is sulfited to bleach it to that white color. Confectioner’s sugar, besides being made from bleached beet sugar, also contains corn starch. (Organic cane sugar is OK, and I use local raw honey whenever possible.)
- Commercially caught shellfish and fish – sulfites are sprayed on to avoid “black mold” – and they do this ON THE BOAT; talk to someone at fish market or a local fisherman to find fish without preservatives. And subsequently canned fish, such as tuna, sardines, crab, etc.
- Shrimp and lobster get an exceptionally high dose of sulfites.
- Dairy products; even the vitamins A & D added to milk products may contain preservatives. I am able to tolerate organic dairy products.
- Precut, dried, frozen or otherwise processed potatoes are heavily preserved to prevent browning. (unless organic) Fast food french fries are about the worst thing you can have. Apparently the potato lobby got the preservative laws not to apply to them. They can use more than what is legal for other foods of similar preparation. (To keep the potatoes from turning brown. Natural antioxidants would be too expensive, apparently.) Look up stories of people having asthma attacks or even dying after eating fast food fries. Yet we feed them to our youngest children, even babies before they can talk.
- Grapes – they are sprayed on the vine in the US to prevent mold.
- Gelatin – the processing includes sulfites. Including gelcaps and filled capsules (vitamins and supplements). I’ve occasionally seen products labelled as using “sulfite free gelatine capsules”.
- Dried fruit is heavily preserved, sometimes even the packaging is treated with preservatives for an extra dose – buy organic dried fruits only.
- Popcorn – any popcorn at a movie theater is going to have sulfites as well as the non-organic microwave stuff – make your own.
- Caramel coloring – this is produced by reacting sugars with ammonia and sulfites under high temperatures and pressures. What is produced is known as 2-methylimidazole and 4 methylimidazole. Those are also carcinogens.
- Foods with citric acid; citric acid is usually made from corn (with preservatives), not citrus, since it is cheaper that way.
- Meats containing a preservative pad. That pad under packaged meat that I always thought was for soaking up juice is a preservative packet. For many reasons, preservatives being just one, I recommend buying all meat from local farms. Look for a farm where the animals are pastured most of the year, and fed mostly hay (for beef) even in winter. Where they are treated humanly, and are antibiotic and preservative free. I am fortunate enough to have found such local farms in my area. I buy beef, chicken (and eggs), turkey, pork and lamb from several local farms. I am able to buy fish from our farmer’s market up to late fall. Search out and support your local farmers. When you buy in bulk, buying directly from a farm is very affordable, and sometimes averages less than what you pay per pound in the grocery store. I purchased an upright freezer just for this purpose, and buy ½ pig and ¼ cow regularly.
- Processed foods such as baked goods, condiments, dried and glacéed fruit (I.e., maraschino cherries), jam, and molasses, store-bought or commercial gravy, dehydrated or pre-cut or peeled potatoes, shrimp, and soup mix.
- Beverages such as beer, wine, hard cider, fruit and vegetable juice, and tea (Papazian, 1996).
Foods that may or may not have sulfites:
- Bread (you have to read the ingredients vigilantly!)
- Chocolate (check for sugars, flavors, chocolate liqueur, corn or potato starch, milk products)
- Wine, beer and most spirits (they do not have to tell you what is in beverages by law, so it is difficult to tell what liquor is derived from or what is added).
- Frozen fish – besides being sprayed with sulfites on the boats, sometimes corn starch is put on frozen fish to keep it from drying out
- Nuts – In the US they spray an anti fungal on processed nuts and often anti fungals are sprayed on the tree when the nuts are growing. This may have sulfites in it.
- City water and many bottled water brands; Well water is usually fine, and Aquafina or other purified (reverse osmosis) bottled waters. The excess chlorine in muncipal water is often bound up using some type of sulfite. There is a regulation on the amount of residual chlorine that can be in drinking water when it comes out of your tap. I am in the process of an inquiry to FDA whether their is a limit to the amount of residual sulfite that can be in drinking water when it comes out of your tap.
- Canola oil. Canola oil is actually rapeseed oil and it become rancid very quickly. They add “deodorizers” to it so you cannot smell the rancidity. Additionally canola oil goes through a process of caustic refining, degumming and bleaching. I cannot find exactly what they use for this process, but you and I both know what many things are bleached with – and even if it isn’t sulfites, it is some nasty chemicals adding to your toxic load. I currently use only organic extra virgin olive oil, even in baking. I can’t even taste it.
- Salt – iodized salt has an anticaking agent made from corn cellulose (preserved), stick to sea salt)
- Pepper (anything pre-ground likely has sulfites (to prevent clumping), but if you grind it fresh you should be OK – except black pepper, which produces naturally occurring sulfites in the fermentation process – white, green and red should be ok, though). You may be able to use organic black pepper, if you are not too sensitive.
- Herbs – use organic and whole leaves instead of powdered. Sulfites are added as anti-clumping agents in many powdered herbs and you just don’t know what they are spraying on there in the non-organic variety. Perhaps keep a kitchen herb garden and use your own fresh herbs as much as possible.
- Yogurt – yogurt itself is OK, just be sure to check for sugars or gelatin.
- Salad dressings and condiments; I tend to make my own salad dressing with organic olive oil and organic apple cider vinegar or lemon juice with herbs, and sea salt.
- Non organic meats (you can get sulfites from whatever feed they give the animals. It may be injected with citric acid to keep it red and then there is something called meat glue used to hold together roasts and such.
- Non dairy milk such as soy, rice, coconut, and almond are filled with preservatives, and additives, and they add vitamins from unknown sources. I have yet to find a fully organic brand, so I’ve been avoiding them altogether. Many people make their own nut milks, and there are recipes online.
The more obscure:
It would seem pretty straight forward to avoid anything with the word sulfite in it, but it is trickier than that. There are lots of ingredients in your food that can have hidden sulfites because they don’t really have to list ingredients of ingredients, or list sulfites if they are considered part of a “process”.
Here is a list of some of the more obscure places sulfites or other preservatives may be lurking:
Road side markets or small farm markets. Although it is not legal to spray fresh fruits and vegetables with preservatives, I have found that that is not always the common understanding out there. Some small farmers think that the no preservatives on fresh produce only applies to produce labelled as organic. That was enough to scare me into only purchasing organic foods, or at least to question farmers if their produce is sprayed. Beyond the sulfite issue, pesticides can be used on fresh fruits and vegetables that are not organic. That additional information was enough to seal the deal for me in my switch to organics. (And beyond ingestion, what are pesticides and herbicides doing to our bees, wildlife, water, soil, etc.)
Citric acid. Watch for this in your canned goods. I buy only organic and without anything but sea salt. I.e., canned pinto beans. Most people think this is from citrus, but they make it cheaply from corn.
Lemon/lime juice concentrate – This is one of the most heavily preserved things you could have!
I have switched to all organic juices, such as Lakewood organic pomegranate juice.
Natural flavorings (yes, sulfites can be considered to be “natural”). I avoid all natural and artificial flavors, all preservatives, and all colorings/dyes. I avoid all natural and artificial flavors, all preservatives, and all colorings/dyes.
Tea bags and coffee filters – the cloth is bleached in sulfites to whiten (organic tea usually has non bleached bags. Or use loose leaf tea with an infuser). The same with coffee filters, use unbleached. Make sure to use organic coffee and tea anyway.
The pads that come under packaged meats – it is illegal to sulfite meat, but apparently this is a loophole
Herbal tinctures – alcohol based tinctures usually have corn alcohol that is preserved. I have been able to use organic pure vanilla extract without a problem.
Temporary ingredients – companies are allowed by law to use existing labels if they are changing an ingredient short term because the normal ingredient is not available.
I know this is a lot of information. Again, I just wanted to get it out there ASAP. I will smooth out the rough edges and add information as I learn it over time. Thanks for reading and sharing!