Sulfites In Food – Allergy And Hypersensitivity

Sulfites are an additive typically used in processed foods. They are apparently harmless and can lead to side effects in some people.
Sulfites in food - Allergy and hypersensitivity

Sulfites in food are chemical substances, and were already used as preservatives by the ancient Greeks and Romans.

At present, the food industry uses them to avoid oxidation of fats and oils in processed foods. This is because they can retain the original color of the food (prevent them from getting darker) and also avoid the appearance of mold, bacteria and unwanted fungi.

Sulfites can be recognized on nutrition labels thanks to their specific nomenclature. Manufacturers must specify the function that these substances have in the food, and then mention them by name or their E-number. They go from E220 to E228.

This statement on the label of a food is mandatory because sulfites are part of a group of substances known to cause hypersensitivity, as shown in the Codex Alimentarius.

Woman reading about sulfites on nutrition labels

What types of products contain sulfites?

Its use is approved in the following food groups:

  • Dried fruits and cakes
  • Fruit juices, beer, wine, cider and other fermented foods
  • Jam
  • Salat dressing
  • Sausages and cold cuts
  • Meat analogues, fish and crustaceans
  • Fresh, frozen and deep-frozen crustaceans

In addition to these food products, there are sulfites in some pharmaceutical and cosmotological products.

In contrast, the US Food and Drug Administration banned the use of sulfites in fresh fruits and vegetables except potatoes in 1986. And they are also not allowed in fresh meat, seafood because this additive destroys the thiamine – or vitamin B1 – present in the food.

Are sulfites safe?

As we have already explained, the use of sulphites is permitted in the food industry. They are present in some fermented foods, such as wine and beer. They are actually found naturally even though it is in minimal amounts in these products.

All food additives that are approved are, in principle, safe and harmless. The amount used is regulated and the maximum amount allowed is far below the values ​​that could be harmful to health.

The safe daily intake of sulfites has been established since 1974. This is 0.7 mg per kilogram of body weight per day.

However, the use of sulfites can be problematic for some people with allergic reactions. And that’s why some organizations, such as the European Food Authority (EFSA) and Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), have appointed expert commissions responsible for assessing the use of sulphites in food.

Primary conclusions based on recent revisions

After analyzing recent assessments, both EFSA and FSANZ drew similar conclusions regarding the use of sulphites in food.

At present, it continues to indicate that the intake of sulfites should not worry consumers. However, both organizations observed how easily a large number of individuals could exceed the maximum recommended amount of 0.7 mg per kilogram. These are mostly adults and children who consume large amounts of sulfites in food.

This is why they emphasize that “we need some studies to be able to evaluate the effects of sulfites in the body, because some people can get side effects”.

Meanwhile, they suggest that the labels clearly reflect the level of sultifers in the final product. This should be done so that people who are hypersensitive to sulfites can limit their intake. Reviewing the labels is one of the best ways in which hypersensitive individuals can avoid excessive and unpredictable intake.

Supermarket with filled shelves

Which people are more sensitive to sulfites in food?

There have been many documented allergic reactions due to ingesting sulfites for some decades. However, not everyone experiences them because some consumer groups are more sensitive to their intake.

These reactions in hypersensitive individuals typically lead to the appearance of various allergic reactions such as:

  • Dermatitis
  • Hives
  • A burning sensation
  • Stomach pain and diarrhea
  • Itching in the throat, secretions from the nose and sneezing.

In addition, sulfur dioxide can be harmful in large quantities, irritate the airways and can even cause additional problems for people with asthma. Between 4 and 8% of people experienced side effects with sulfites.

The mechanism of reaction is not obvious, but it seems that some components lead to bronchoconstriction. It leads to symptoms such as cough, shortness of breath, wheezing and hoarseness.

In conclusion, persistent exposure to sulfites can be a problem for some people with asthma and in particular for hypersensitive people. While we wait for news about the maximum intake,  these people should pay more attention to their intake of products that contain the said substance.

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