Sulfites: What are They and Do They Harm Us?


You’ve probably dropped the sulfates from your shampoo - especially if you color your hair! But, what about in your diet? Should you watch out for those too?

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 and processed seafood

  • Soup mixes

  • Jams and jellies (sulfites present in pectin)

  • Baked goods and refrigerated/frozen ready-to-bake dough products (sulfites used as dough conditioner)

  • Canned fruit and vegetables

  • Shredded coconut

  • Molasses

  • Pickled foods

  • Beer and wine

  • Prepackaged citrus juice (those cute little lemon-lime shaped bottles)

  • Grape juice

  • Packaged gravy

  • Potato products – pre-cut, frozen, and dried, such as instant mashed potatoes

  • Chips

Sulfites are also naturally occurring in some fresh foods, including:

  • Fermented foods, like sauerkraut and sourdough

  • Grapes

  • Some cheeses, like packaged shredded cheese

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.

True sulfite intolerance is rare and most people don’t experience side effects from consuming food and drink that contains sulfites.

The most at-risk population for sulfite intolerance is 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. That’s because the liver and kidneys normally contain high amounts of sulphite oxidase – the enzyme responsible for converting sulfites to the sulfate form for excretion.

Symptoms of Intolerance

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

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 your doctor for further testing.

Some studies suggest sulfites can damage or decrease the number of good-for-you bacteria in your small intestine, also known as the gut microbiome. A compromised gut can then lead to many other health issues.

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!

Should I 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.

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!

Read Your Labels Guide

If you've ever heard the grocery shopping tip to stick to the perimeter of the store, this guide will tell you exactly why that's a fabulous idea.

The perimeter of the supermarket is where the fresh foods are -- that's where you'll find your produce, your bulk bins, and a vast majority of the unprocessed, whole foods you strive to eat. The fresher the foods, the less likely you’ll find unhealthy ingredients lurking.

Check out this FREE guide for what to avoid on your next shopping trip so you can be informed and ready to find the best food for you!

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