Sulfite Sensitivity

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I’d like to ask you about sulfites. I suspect that this might be what’s behind my occasional asthma attacks, so I stay away from wine, balsamic vinegar, dried fruit (is there anything I’m missing here?). I have a feeling that many people have sensitivities to them and they just don’t know it. So can you tell me a little more about sulfites?

As it happens, sulphur is a fairly major contaminant of our food supply. Although it is an essential mineral that we need in our bodies, the forms in which it is added to foods by growers, processors and restaurants is not the kind we need and can have a toxic effect. Sulphur usually comes in the form of sulfites, which are mostly used to prevent spoilage and the discoloration of food, and for storage and packaging.

Technically, sulfites don’t necessarily cause a true allergic reaction (in that the immune system may or may not be involved). But people who are sensitive to the additive may experience similar reactions as those with food allergies, some of which can be quite severe.

Some of the more common symptoms of a sulfite reaction are migraines and asthma attacks, as you mentioned. People with asthma are most at risk for sulfite sensitivity and other forms of sulfite reactions, children being the most vulnerable. Other symptoms include reddening of the face; hives or a rash; red and itchy skin; swelling of the eyes, face, lips, throat and tongue; trouble breathing, speaking or swallowing; anxiety; distress; faintness; paleness; sense of doom; weakness; cramps; diarrhea; vomiting; drops in blood pressure; rapid heartbeat or loss of consciousness.

Thankfully, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has banned the use of sulfites on any produce intended to be served raw such as freshly-cut fruits and vegetables. This ban was put in place after a string of reactions and even deaths in the US from sensitive people exposed to excessive amounts on salad bars. A solution of sulphur dioxide is sometimes used on potato products like French fries or potato chips to keep them from turning brown after being cut. They are also used to prevent the black spots from showing up on shrimp; a sign that indicates lack of freshness. Wine is another place sulfites are used, in order to prevent further fermentation and inhibit the growth of mold, yeast and contaminating bacteria. Grapes themselves are even sprayed with them to stop a type of fungal growth on their leaves.

Here’s a list of some other sulphite-containing foods. This list is taken from local holistic nutritionist Meredith Deasley’s book “The Resourceful Mother’s Secret To Healthy Kids” (recommended!). Watch for sulfites in non-organic versions of:

  • Avocado dip
  • Beer
  • Cider
  • Cod (dried)
  • Fruit (fresh and dried)
  • Fruit juices, purees and filling
  • Gelatin
  • Potatoes
  • Salad dressings (dry mix) and relishes
  • Sauces and gravies (canned or dried)
  • Sauerkraut and coleslaw
  • Shellfish and seafood
  • Soups (canned and dried)
  • Vegetables
  • Wine vinegar
  • Wine and wine coolers

In things like dried fruit you can tell if the product has been exposed to sulfites if it still has its bright color. Most fruits brown naturally when they’re exposed to air, so natural dried fruits are usually brown in color. Other than this, you may just have to go to know for sure that you’re not getting exposed.

Organic wines can be free of added sulfites, although they are not necessarily so. A truly sulphite-free wine is not possible since they occur naturally in the fermentation process in wine-making. Even organic wines that have no added sulfites will contain a little of these naturally occurring compounds. This may be what’s responsible for headaches in some people following red wine consumption, aside from the usual hangover symptoms (often a single glass can result in headaches). Those who are sensitive should be careful even with organic wine.

The Healthy Foodie is Doug DiPasquale, Holistic Nutritionist and trained chef, living in Toronto.

Editor’s Review:

I have problems with sulphites, and in addition to the food and drinks you’ve mentioned, I’ve had trouble with beer. There’s some debate online about whether or not beer contains sulphites, but I definitely notice a difference between big-company brands like Labatts and Molson and small microbrewery brands like Mill Street. The smaller brands don’t tend to bother me as much, so perhaps they have less sulphites?

I’ve also read that German brands are a better choice for people with sulphite sensitivities because the rules for brewing beer in Germany are very old and very strict, and so sulphites aren’t allowed. Again, I don’t have any proof about this, but if you have issues with sulphites (and you like a cold beer now and again), it might be worth a try.

Tip – We found French, Italian and Chilean wines more tolerable than North American or Australia wines.

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