Sulfites, inorganic food additives that are also used in medications, can develop naturally during food processing. Sulfites help prevent browning, molding and dark spots in foods, and enhance crispness of crispy foods; they also help stabilize and maintain the potency of pharmaceuticals. Sulfite sensitivity can develop at any time during a person’s life.
Sulfite sensitivity symptoms include difficulty breathing, skin reactions, abdominal cramping, nausea and diarrhea. According to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology, people with asthma are particularly susceptible to sulfite sensitivity. High concentrations of sulfites in food can produce a gas called sulfur dioxide, which can irritate the lungs, leading to constriction of the airway and difficulty breathing. The best way to prevent reactions is to avoid taking in sulfites.
The Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, prohibits the use of sulfites on raw, fresh fruits and vegetables. Packaging of processed foods containing sulfites must include a warning. The U.S. Department of Agriculture does not allow sulfites to be used on meat, but they may be used during the preparation of meats to be used in processed foods, such as canned soups or stews, according to the University of Florida Extension program. Food service establishments are not required to disclose whether sulfites were used during preparation, so ask questions.
Sulfites are added to some alcoholic beverages, particularly to wine, to prevent harmful bacterial growth, but sulfites can also develop naturally during the fermentation process. Beer, wine, wine coolers and cocktail mixes all may contain a concentration of sulfites.
Foods of Concern
Sulfites are still used in the preparation of many foods, including baked goods, citrus-flavored beverage mixes, condiments, relishes, sugar derived from sugar beets, seafood, nut products, puddings, gelatin, fillings, grain products, pasta, processed vegetables, fresh potatoes, syrups, jams, jellies, soups, teas, snack foods and plant protein products, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Check labels for any ingredient containing “sulfur” or “sulfite” in the name, including sulfur dioxide, potassium bisulfite, potassium metabisulfite and sodium sulfite, and limit your intake of these products.
If you have altered your diet and are watching labels, but still have symptoms, the problem could be your medications. Drugs prescribed for nausea, pain, cardiovascular disease and muscle relaxers may contain sulfites. They might also be in antibiotics, tranquilizers and steroids. Individuals with asthma and sulfite sensitivities should be sure to check nebulized bronchodilator solutions, as they also are at risk of containing sulfites. Talk to your physician or pharmacist to ensure all medications, prescribed and over-the-counter, which you are using are sulfite-free.
- American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology: Food Allergy
- “Sulfites: Separating Fact from Fiction”; Paul Grother et al.
- Cleveland Clinic: Sulfite Sensitivity
- American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology: Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Food Allergy in the United States -- Report of the NIAID-Sponsored Expert Panel
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images
This article reflects the views of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Jillian Michaels or JillianMichaels.com.