Sulfites refer to a group of chemical ingredients that are added to processed foods and drinks mainly to serve as a preservative.
Sulfite-containing ingredients can go by several names, including:
- Sulphur dioxide
- Sodium sulphite
- Sodium metabisulfite
- Calcium sulphite
- Potassium hydrogen sulphite
Sulfites are used to prevent browning/preserve color of foods, bleach flours, increase shelf life of processed foods, and maintain freshness.
Where are sulfites found?
Sulfites are commonly found in the following food and drink products:
- Dried fruit
- Shrimp & processed seafood
- Soup mixes
- Jams & jellies (sulfites present in pectin)
- Baked goods & refrigerated/frozen ready-to-bake dough products (sulfites used as dough conditioner)
- Canned fruit & vegetables
- Shredded coconut
- Pickled foods
- Beer & wine
- Prepackaged citrus juice (those cute little lemon-lime shaped bottles!)
- Grape juice
- Potato products – pre-cut, frozen, and dried, such as instant mashed potatoes
Sulfites are also naturally occurring in some fresh foods, including:
- Fermented foods, like sauerkraut and sourdough
- Some cheeses, like packaged shredded cheese
Sulfites can even be found in some medications and personal care products!
Be sure to check ingredient labels and inform your healthcare practitioners and pharmacists if you suspect you’re sensitive or trying to avoid added sulfites.
What is sulfite intolerance – and are sulfites actually bad for you?
Government agencies consider sulfite ingredients as “generally recognized as safe” for human consumption at low concentrations. In most countries, like Canada, Australia, and the US, sulfites are required to be listed on all food and beverage labels.
However, Health Canada includes sulfites as a priority allergen. Although they do not cause true allergic reactions (IgE antibody reaction), they are still grouped with the priority food allergens because sulfite-sensitive individuals may react to sulfites with allergy-like symptoms. Because they do not illicit an IgE antibody reaction and can’t be considered a true allergy, there is no allergy testing available for sulfites.
The most at-risk population for sulfite intolerance are individuals diagnosed with asthma. It’s estimated that 3-10% of asthma sufferers are also sensitive to sulfite-containing products.
Those with impaired liver and/or kidney function may also be sensitive to sulfites. This is because the liver and kidneys normally contain high amounts of sulphite oxidase – the enzyme responsible for converting sulfites to the sulfate form for excretion. If you have decreased kidney function or your liver is sluggish, your ability to process the sulfites will be reduced.
The most commonly discussed symptoms related to sulfite intolerance can range from mild to severe and include:
- Inflammatory skin reactions, like hives, redness, and swelling
- Respiratory distress, like wheezing, coughing, and congestion
- Constricted airflow and/or asthma attack
- Anaphylactic shock
- Stomach upset and diarrhea
The effects of sulfur intolerance are much more expansive in their symptomology that listed above. Additional symptoms of sulfur intolerance include:
- Ammonia-smelling breath
- Egg-smelling and foul-smelling gas
- Frequent headaches
- Itchy skin
- Joint/ muscle – seizure and pain
- Difficulty controlling Candida / yeast overgrowth despite taking anti-fungals and probiotics
- Brain fog (most common symptom)
- General malaise
- Difficulty breathing
- Hay fever like symptoms
- Problems – blood pressure
- A history of asthma and shortness of breath
- Bloated, gassy, and/or experiencing abdominal pain
- Often experience headaches, anxiety or tendency towards anger outbursts
- Experiencing flushing, sweats, or tend to have hot hands and feet
- A history of skin problems such as rashes, acne, eczema, psoriasis, or dermatitis hives and other skin reactions
- Symptoms worsen when you consume alcohol or when you eat cruciferous greens and other sulfur containing foods such as garlic, onions, legumes and eggs
- Allergy to ‘sulfa-drugs’ / sulfonamides (certain antibiotics)
- Adverse reactions to supplements that contain a lot of sulfur, such as MSM, N-acetyl cysteine and TMG
Some studies suggest sulfites can damage or decrease the number of good bacteria in your small intestine. A compromised gut can then lead to many other health issues.
If you notice any of the above symptoms following ingestion of sulfite-containing food or drink, you’re likely sensitive to sulfites, and you should consult with your healthcare practitioner for further testing.
Through the BIE (BioEnergetics) Process, we can determine how your body reacts with sulfur, sulfites, and sulfates to see if this is in part what is causing your symptoms and help bring your body back into balance.
If you want to find out more on the BIE Process and if you have a sulfur based sensitivity that is affecting your health, book in your free 30 min consultation with me below:
Sulfites in red wine causes headaches, right?
Actually, the jury is still out on what exactly is to blame for the commonly-reported red wine-induced headache.
Wine contains significantly fewer sulfites compared to other products, such as dried fruit. If you don’t experience a headache after eating dried fruit, it’s unlikely sulfites in wine are causing your headache.
However, other ingredients in wine, such as histamine and tannins CAN cause headache. Of course, the alcohol itself found in wine may also cause a headache 😉
If you experience headaches after drinking wine, make sure you’re properly hydrated, or you may just need to avoid wine altogether!
So, should you avoid sulfites?
If you or a family member has asthma, you may want to consider removing sulfite-containing products from your home to minimize the risk of adverse reactions.
If you’re on a mission to improve gut health and/or trying to eat mostly natural foods without added chemicals, you’ll certainly want to avoid sulfite-containing foods.
The good news is that focusing on a whole foods diet made up of fresh fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats automatically eliminates exposure to most sources of sulfites!
(Just another perk your health can benefit from when you cut back on the amount of processed foods in your diet!)
Healthline: The 8 Most Common Food Intolerances
Adverse reactions to the sulphite additives, Gastroenterology and Hepatology from Bed to Bench, 2012.
Considerations for the diagnosis and management of sulphite sensitivity, Gastroenterology and Hepatology from Bed to Bench, 2012.
Sulfites inhibit the growth of four species of beneficial gut bacteria at concentrations regarded as safe for food, PLOS One, 2017.
Alcohol and migraine: trigger factor, consumption, mechanisms, Journal of Headache & Pain, 2008.
Food Allergy Basics: Sulfites, Food Allergy Canada
Sulfites – Priority Allergens, Health Canada, 2017