Sulfites Sulfate and Sulfur
This article is primarily about sulfites, but to get there we should define some terms and hopefully reduce some confusion about the different types of sulfur compounds.
Sulfates are salts of sulfuric acid, commonly used in the making of various drugs, such as albuterol sulfate, iron sulfate, chondroitin sulfate and codeine sulfate. Experts say that any allergic reaction to these medicines is probably not due to the sulfate. There does not appear to be any reason for people with sulfa or sulfite allergies to avoid medications that contain a sulfate salt, but of course caution is always advisable.
Sulfite-Free Sun Dried Tomatoes - Julienne Strips
Sulfur is a mineral used in the production of many drugs, gunpowder, fertilizers and other commercial chemicals. Sulfa drugs, sulfite preservatives, and sulfates are all derived from sulfur. Sulfur is essential element for all life and organically bonded sulfur is a component of all proteins. No one is allergic to sulfur, and to be allergic you would be allergic to your own flesh, but about 10% of the population is allergic to derivatives of sulfur. There does not appear to be a reason for people with sulfa and/or sulfite allergy to specifically avoid sulfur-containing compounds.
Are You Alergic?
Dried fruit with and without sulfites
Sulfites are food additives used in processed foods to enhance flavor and preserve freshness. Food processors use sulfites to reduce or prevent spoilage and discoloration during the preparation, storage and distribution of foods. Products treated include processed potatoes, dried fruits, grape juices (white, white sparkling, pink sparkling, and red sparkling), bottled lemon and limejuice, dehydrated vegetables and some seafood, especially shellfish. If you have a sulfite allergy, exercise caution when buying shrimp. Sometimes shrimp are treated on the fishing boat with sulfites and sulfites may not appear on the label. Sulfites retard browning and inhibit the deterioration of such nutrients as vitamin C. Sulfites are also used to bleach food starches, (your corn starch, besides being genetically modified has some sulfites in it) as a dough conditioner in certain baked goods, to control fermentation of wine and to soften corn kernels during the wet-milling process.
Apples, bananas, pears, peaches, eggplant, and avocados and others contain an enzyme; polyphenoloxydase, when these foods are cut the enzyme oxidizes polymers on the surface and condenses into brown or gray polymers. This enzyme is not present in foods like melons, tomatoes and citrus. This explains why some foods do not turn brown as rapidly. When a processor adds sufites, they combine with the polymers on the surface and slow down the browning reaction so this is why we use sulfites.
Wine has natural sulfites
Sulfites also occur naturally in some beer, wine, fruit and vegetable juices. The FDA estimates that one out of 100 people is sensitive to the various sulfites, for sensitive people a reaction can be mild or life threatening. In 1986, the FDA banned the use of sulfites on fresh foods. Up until ’86 restaurants and industry used them to preserve the fresh appearance of foods like salads and sliced apples. When sulfites are used in processed foods, they have to be on the label, depending on amounts present in the finished product. In foods where sulfit occurs naturally there may be no such warning. Since July 9, 1987, warning labels have been required on all alcoholic beverages with at least 10 ppm of sulfites. Sulfites used in food processing but not specifically added as a preservative are only required to be listed if there are more than 10 parts per million (ppm) in the finished product. Currently, sulfiting agents are not considered GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) for use in meats, foods recognized as a major source of vitamin B-1 (sulfites have been found to destroy thiamin ), or “fruits or vegetables intended to be served raw to consumers or to be presented to consumers as fresh.” (FDA, 1988b) The USDA prohibits the use of sulfites on meat because they may give an appearance of “false freshness” by restoring the red color to raw meat.
According to studies at the University of Wisconsin Clinical Sciences Center, Dr. Robert Bush, A leading researcher, believes that most sulfite-sensitive asthmatics do not react to residues (sulfites remaining in food after treatment) below 100 parts per million. This research is ongoing.
Sulfite Free Organic Pineapple
Symptoms of Sulfite Allergy
A person experiencing an allergic reaction may have any of the following symptoms:
- Flushed 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
- A drop in blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, loss of consciousness
Sulfite test strips
Sulfate test strips
FDA regulations, require manufacturers to include a warning label on all prescription drugs to which sulfites have been added. Sulfites need not be listed on the labels of over-the-counter products so sulfite-sensitive individuals should contact the manufacturer to determine whether sulfites are used in specific over-the-counter products.
These are the six used by the food industry:
1. sulfur dioxide,
2. sodium sulfite,
3. sodium bisulfite,
4. potassium bisulfite,
5. sodium metabisulfite
6. potassium metabisulfite.
Have you ever seen a dried apricot that was not preserved with sulfur dioxide? They are stiff, brown and unappealing although they taste better than they look. Unsulfured dried fruits are available in specialty stores for those that are sensitive to sulfur preservatives. Mainstream stores mostly carry dried fruits treated with sulfur dioxide gas: apricots, peaches, pears, figs and apples. With the current interest in organic food and healthy eating this is beginning to change, so you may find some unsulfured foods in your market.
Dates, prunes and dried pineapple may or may not be preserved with sulfur. Coconut prepared commercially is usually treated with sulfites but again you can look for organic and find sulfur free. Sulfited coconut may be shredded, flaked or powered and is used in candies, cookies, cakes and Pina Colada cocktails. Your first defense should always be to read the label.
Fresh lemons and limes contain no sulfites, and they do a good job of preventing scurvy, so, if you are planning a long ocean voyage with Black Beard, take some lemons. Bottled juices are heavily preserved with sodium bisulfite to prevent browning, so maybe you have to ask Black Beard to put in a store of fresh citrus, nobody likes a Scurvy Pirate! If you are sensitive and you see a lemon-based salad dressing in a restaurant, it might be best to avoid it, many but certainly not all restaurants would use bottled lemon juice.
Sugars, cane, beet, brown, powdered and molasses
Sugar comes in many forms: cane and beet, white and brown, granulated and powdered. Granulated cane sugar, probably the most common sugar used, is relatively low in naturally occurring sulfites, and is generally okay for those with sulfite allergies. Brown cane sugar is likewise low in sulfites. Beet sugar, however, requires more attention. Beet sugar often bleached with sulfur dioxide to make it whiter. Brown beet sugar is simply white beet sugar, which has had cane molasses added to it to make it brown. Neither is a good choice for someone with sulfite sensitivities.
Powdered sugar is nothing more than regular granulated sugar, ground fine with small amounts of cornstarch added to it. For those unaware, cornstarch is always bleached with sulfites.
Unsulfured molasses created by the cane process is quite low in sulfites. Unfortunately, other forms like blackstrap are sulfured and can have levels near 100 ppm. Simply look for unsulfured molasses. Table and pancake syrups are almost all made with corn syrup, lots of it. Some are even darkened with sulfited caramel color. I usually use real maple syrup or honey because bees don’t like sulfur either.
Now for the good news. Chocolate hides a sulfur content that can be quite high depending on the form of chocolate. People do not add it; blame Mother Nature. All chocolate starts out as a cocoa bean, which is pressed to yield chocolate liquor and cocoa butter. Chocolate liquor mixed with cocoa butter is the familiar bitter baking chocolate; chocolate without the cocoa butter is ground into cocoa. All is not lost for the person allergic to sulfites because the sulfur in chocolate is elemental sulfur, not sulfites. A sensitive person may or may not react to chocolate.
If you have a strong allergic reaction to sulfites you may already know some ways to avoid the substances. However, even with today's technology, food recalls due to undeclared sulfite (as a food ingredient) continue to occur in the United States.
In a glaring example of the inefficiencies of government the FDA regulates sulfite use in drugs and food, except for meat and poultry, which fall under the purview of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Unless it’s in wine or alcoholic beverages, when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) regulates the use. On the other hand the use of sulfur dioxide as a fungicide on grapes comes under the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Dawn on December 27, 2017:
Thank you for posting all this information on sulfa, sulfur, sulfities, metibisulfitites natural & added preservatives to chocolate.
I have severe reactions - Redness, Hives, Stop Breathing and My Heart even Stopped! I am so happy that that the government is mandating when these items are used. It could save lives.
Lee Raynor (author) from Citra Florida on February 18, 2017:
How did you finally figure it out?
Lee Raynor (author) from Citra Florida on December 19, 2016:
Yes, we let big companies get away with too much.
Marcy Dow on December 19, 2016:
I do suffer from the sulfur allergies. My stomach is what is bothered with pain, cramping and gas. I have avoided some food for a long time but never realized how many more I should be avoiding. This article was very helpful. Thank you
Lee Raynor (author) from Citra Florida on January 15, 2015:
You're absolutely right.Food manufacturers are wary of telling us what is in our food for fear that we would stop buying it.
Not just sulfites but add GMOs, "all natural" which includes anything not made in a laboratory, things like hydrolyzed yeast which is a natural form of MSG
Jerry on January 15, 2015:
I have Grover's Disease which is activated by sulfite ingestion. I did not have this problem when I was young and drank lots and lots of wine. Apparently my liver no longer has the ability to handle sulfites and I must exercise care in my choices of food or I break out in itchy red bumps on my torso. I take molybdenum and that provides some relief. It would be very helpful if all foods had to list sulfite content, however small the amount.
Lee Raynor (author) from Citra Florida on June 19, 2014:
It sounds like you are taking the right steps for your son.
Lee Raynor (author) from Citra Florida on June 19, 2014:
You point out what I have been saying, our American diet of heavily processed food is probably toxic. "All Natural" is a lie that allows many things that you and I would never put in our mouths. Margarine was once a healthy alternative to butter and doctors smoked.
"Certified Organic" may be the only food that is truly safe to eat but can be prohibitively expensive. The only motive that food processors respond to is profit. In spite of the people that glorify the private market, it is only after people get sick and or die that the market responds. So, you and I are guinea pigs.
We should all respond by avoiding processed foods and cooking for ourselves
Lee Raynor (author) from Citra Florida on June 19, 2014:
Hi no name
Unfortunately washing will do little to help, the sulfites will be deeply embedded in the food that is processed with them.
Karen on June 18, 2014:
After 8 mos and 12 doctors with no sure diagnosis, I think my 12 year old son has a sulfite sensitivity or allergy. After keeping a food journal and noting his symptoms to what he ate, it seems to be the common denominator. He has had headaches, stomach pain, fatigue, foggy thinking, and insomnia.
Shavarra Silverfu on June 13, 2014:
Chef it is a really good article.
A few things though. I am a sulfite sensitive individual. I have slowly gotten better. However Like Tiffj I absolutely reacted to high sulfur containing foods. It is more than likely this is due to the internal break down the sulfur through the sulfite oxidase. This is just a guess I have come to since as you said it is impossible for someone to live if they are completely unable to process sulfur. There is a severe genetic mutation where some are born without the ability to process sulfur. Those born that way very seldom live more than 6 months. However I did have to remove the lily family and mustard family from my diet. I am just now starting to be able (8 years later) to add those families back in. This has happened due to active work on my part with genetic testing and then supplementation to address blockages in sulfur processing. It is definitely possible to be allergic to high sulfur foods like Tiffj mentions. Some folks with specific sulfite/gene issues even have to go low protein because the sulfur amino acids cause them problems. Sulfite allergy is a life altering allergy. It requires giving up all processed foods. I mean ALL ... LOL I didn't have ketchup for almost 4 years and no mayo till I started making it homemade. Making all your food from scratch is good for you in one way but it is almost a full time job. I still do not tolerate store bought meat .. I buy all my meat direct from a farmer. IT is expensive and there are sulfites hidden in so many things because the labeling laws in the USA stink. A product that uses ingredients from multiple sources does not have to list sulfites if they don't use sulfites in their product specifically and none of the ingredients list sulfites ... if you gather together several ingredients that have a ppm of 9 (under the limit of easy testing of 10ppm) the product will have more than 10 ppm but not have to list it because the manufacturer doesn't have to test it if they didn't add any and none of the components were over the 10ppm limit. It gets even MORE interesting when the sulfites are used as a processing aid. LOL after 8 years I just make stuff at home and forget about trying to buy it prepackaged.
No name on May 31, 2014:
I always wheezed slightly when drinking some wines, or eating dried apricots. Now I know why! Does washing or cooking the fruit help?
Lee Raynor (author) from Citra Florida on May 28, 2014:
Thanx Beeeee !
Beeeee on May 27, 2014:
Thanks for the article. It is very informative
Cynthianne Neighbors on December 27, 2013:
I LOVE to garden!! I grew up "eating off the land". My health and having to move into town have made my three acre garden down scale to three potted plants, but I grow tomatoes and herbs. I have a little more space this year so am hoping to grow my own lettuce etc.. I am "pre-diabetic" but slowly getting out of that category since switching from the eating style I had gotten into to what I am able to do now. Having a garden is such a wonderful thing. Good for you!! :) I have seen very positive weight loss since getting back to this healthy way if eating. I am glad that the new place I moved to will allow me more space to grow. I am also talking to them about the possibility of a community garden. Time will tell on that.
Lee Raynor (author) from Citra Florida on December 26, 2013:
As I researched our American food supply I was amazed at what we are doing to ourselves. We have been eating pesticides, Round Up, BPA and many other chemicals and GMOs for the past 30 years. Meanwhile Allergies, Autism, Asthma and Obesity are rampant and increasing.
The only way I found that I can follow a healthy diet (I'm diabetic) is to grow as much of my own food as possible. Having a garden pushed me also into a Mediterranean type diet.
It took weeks of a healthy diet to lose the cravings for American junk food but now my blood sugar is near normal and I am losing weight.
Cynthianne Neighbors on December 26, 2013:
I completely agree that industrial agriculture and GMO foods are a contributing factor. There are so many things added to foods that by the time the industry is done, it is not really food at all, just tasty looking junk. I switched to a more Mediterranean style of eating and actually feel a bit better. This meant to ignore the low carbs craze and actually enjoy the pasta with the olive oil. I am careful about the brand of pasta to avoid unwanted "processed in a plant with (insert ingredients here) . I was surprised to feel better and actually lost weight. It was a real eye-opener to see how much more I was adding in my diet when I thought I was being careful before. Thank you for your article here, I have a new avenue to go when trouble-shooting allergic reactions.
Lee Raynor (author) from Citra Florida on December 25, 2013:
Thanx for your comment. I never realized how blessed I am to have no allergies until I started researching these articles. A lot of people (like yourself) have to put up with a lot and be extraordinarily careful about what they eat. I suspect that our American style of industrial agriculture and GMO foods is making us ill.
Cynthianne Neighbors on December 25, 2013:
Thank you for such an informative article! I have many, many allergies, among them sulfites and sulfates, sulfa drugs etc...I am also allergic to garlic in any form. Garlic has naturally occurring sulfur which, as you know, our bodies make naturally. It is confusing to me why I would be allergic to that but I am also allergic to citric acid even in natural forms such as oranges. I can have fresh limes occasionally and tomatoes before I break out in hives. My doctor says I can't possibly have these allergies. It is good to see such a comprehensive article covering the foods that may have sulfites and sulfates added. It makes more sense to me now why I can have fresh lime but will get very sick with bottled lime. I am examining my allergies more carefully now to see if sulfites have been added unbeknownst to me. Thank you!!
Lee Raynor (author) from Citra Florida on December 24, 2013:
Thanx for the comments
Yeah, people with allergies have a tough time deciphering what is safe to use
Lynn Mendelsohn on December 24, 2013:
Great article! I loved learning more about Allergies as I was diagnosed with a Sulfur allergy as a child and I always thought it was just sulfur I couldn't have but yours makes so much more sense! I'm also very wary of doctors since I've been diagnosed time and again medications I could die from without any real concern when I say my allergies! I choose to use doTERRA Essential oils for most health concerns!
Lee Raynor (author) from Citra Florida on August 14, 2013:
Thanx for the comment, there may be a new Hub about wine in your question, I know little about wine or what would cause headaches.
I will say that the American diet is chock full of contaminants and we would all be better off eating fresh foods, even growing our own food to avoid the cornucopia of additives present in packaged foods.
Check out some of my other Hubs for more on the sad state of food in the US
CraftytotheCore on August 13, 2013:
This was interesting reading. I had a reaction to pill-form sulfur one time and got a hot fiery itchy red rash on my legs. But then another time I had a sulfur treatment for asthma (the breathing machine and medicine that smells like rotten eggs, I forgot the name of it), and it helped me a lot! No reaction to that at all.
A lot of people have told me they suffer from sulfur headaches after drinking wine. I wonder what else in the wine could cause that symptom.
Lee Raynor (author) from Citra Florida on March 11, 2013:
But are you saying you are allergic to elemental sulfur or the derivatives like sulfates and sulfites?
All of my research said that sulfur is part of our own cells and it is the derivative chemicals that cause allergic reactions??
Tiffj on March 10, 2013:
The Drs who say you cannot be allergic to sulfur are often shocked when I turn out to be anaphylactic to it. I have heard that incorrect info far too much. I react to high levels of sulfur even naturally occuring in foods like garlic and onions, I react to all the artificial additives (colour, preservatives etc etc) with sulfur (foods and additives cause swolen glands in neck and tonsilitis like symptoms and migraines) and to the drugs with sulfur. I react with anaphylactic shock (usually when IV or intramuscular but also some tablets) to some and others to a lesser serious anaphylactic swelling issues or minimum of migraine when leves are really low and in tablet form. I have even reacted the same way to some drugs that are made with a chemical reaction that uses sulfur (but removes most of the sulfur in the reaction). I check with DRs then pharmacists and then before taking always check the manufacturers website for the DRs information sheets and check the chemical structure and process of production. Occassional I have still had anaphylactic reactions that have hospitalised me.
Lee Raynor (author) from Citra Florida on May 04, 2012:
As you said "Check with your pharmacist" is probably the best advice that can be given. Drug companies are in business to sell drugs, helping patients is almost a side effect. Doctors are not well informed so in the US it is buyer beware.
Tchr4Life-still learning! on May 03, 2012:
I was told I'd never survive another antibiotic that had sulphur-related intredients (SULPHUR ALLERGY was on my chart in RED); but drs don't really know what they're prescribing. SO CHECK W/PHARMACIST! I came home to die 2-1/2 years ago because medicines I was on had sulfates,sulfites & somethng that started with "ch" that was sulfur related. I STOPPED ALL DRUGS! went on a 500mg garlic/parsley for the blood clots I formed constantly...NO BLOOD CLOTS W 1 DAILY! BP came to normal; cholesterol to normal as shown on next year's blood tests; WARFARIN (FORMERLY RAT POISON) HAD TAKEN 3-5 WEEKS TO DISSOLVE 1 PERIPHERAL CLOT; DBLE GARLIC/PARSLEY - 3-5 DAYS EVEN FOR CLUSTERS; PLUS I HAVE THSE TINY LITTLE ANKLES NOW ... NO EDEMA...BUT IF I FORGET FOR 10 DAYS! and I did just once these last years; and CLUSTERS FORMED...bUT, I WAS RDG YOUR ARTICLE BECAUSE TONIGHT I'M HAVING SOME KIND OF REACTION AGAIN W/SWOLLEN; BURNING; HEAVILY CREVICED; DEEP RED TONGUE,,,more research, I'll try an antihistamine....
Lee Raynor (author) from Citra Florida on December 31, 2011:
Thanx for that clarification. In my own research I find sources that say pineapple both is and is not cured with sulfites.
Hopefully, anyone with a severe allergy is reading labels but I will ammend the article.
Ginny on December 31, 2011:
In this article it says dried pineapple is not preserved with sulfur. I had an acute allergy reaction to dried pineapple (first sulfur dioxide episode) and the ingredients listed were pineapple and sulfur dioxide so be careful.
Lee Raynor (author) from Citra Florida on June 01, 2011:
The more I research what we do to our food the more I'm amazed we survive our food supply
Mimi721wis on May 31, 2011:
Voted up and Useful. We always think of peanut, seafood, and mushroom allergies. Never thought of sulfites.
Lee Raynor (author) from Citra Florida on May 29, 2011:
Thanx Jac and Fay
Yes\, after 40 years in foodservice I'm still learning
Fay Paxton on May 29, 2011:
Chef, I learn something everytime I read one of your hubs. I've bookmarked so many of them, I practically have a book. :)
up/useful and awesome
Jac Brostek on May 28, 2011:
Each time I read an article I find out something new. I had no idea there was so much to know about food.
Lee Raynor (author) from Citra Florida on May 27, 2011:
Thanx Livelonger, the more research I do the more I am inclined to eat organic. My grandparents lived until their late 80s with a diet including butter, eggs and bacon but without genetically modified foods and chemicals. I wonder how my generation will do.
Jason Menayan from San Francisco on May 27, 2011:
Very interesting treatment on why these are used, and why, in some cases, you should really avoid them!