Sulfite Intolerance

sulfite intolerance
Beer is a no-no if you have sulfite intolerance. by Volanthevist/Getty Images

Have you ever had a glass of red wine or a beer and felt your face flush, your body flash with heat, and feel sick to your stomach? You may have what is known as sulfite intolerance, or also commonly referred to as sulfite sensitivity.

Sulfite is common in our food system because it is used in the processing of food as a food preservative. The good news (since preservatives often get a bad rap) is that sulfites help protect against salmonella, prevent food from browning, and preserve wine and other foods.

Signs of Sulfite Intolerance

The bad news is that some individuals are sensitive to sulfites, especially if they have asthma. In fact, about 3 to 10% of people with asthma are sensitive to sulfites. Their symptoms, when ingesting foods containing sulfites, include wheezing, tightness of the chest, and difficulty breathing. Unfortunately, avoiding sulfites has not been proven to reverse asthmatic symptoms, however, it may help minimize them in those who are sensitive.

Other reactions to sulfites include flushing, feeling a change in body temperature, a drop in blood pressure, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, difficulty swallowing, dizziness, loss of consciousness, hives, swelling, rash, and a whole body reaction called non-immune anaphylaxis (a serious reaction that cannot be tested for), which showcases the same symptoms as food allergy anaphylaxis.

Testing for Sulfite Intolerance

Currently, there are no lab tests to evaluate sulfite intolerance.

Since it doesn’t involve immunoglobulin E antibody (IgE), sulfite does not show up on blood tests or skin prick tests.

Theories of Sulfite Intolerance

The mechanism of sulfite intolerance is unknown, and there isn’t enough evidence to pinpoint why some people react to sulfites. However, there are three hypothesized mechanisms of sulfite intolerance:

  • Sulfur dioxide may directly irritate the lungs, causing asthmatic symptoms in an individual sensitive to sulfites.
  • Sulfites may bind to other proteins in food, creating a new protein, which acts like an allergen to which the body is sensitive.
  • Individuals with sulfite intolerance may not have enough sulfite oxidase, which is an enzyme that converts sulfite to sulfate, a harmless substance. The thought is that sulfite levels rise in the body due to the deficiency of sulfite oxidase.

Ingredient Labeling

Sulfites must be labeled on the food product if they are present in amounts greater than 10 ppm (parts per million). The use of sulfites on fruits and vegetables (except grapes and sliced potatoes) was banned in 1986 by the FDA. Sulfites may be found in bulk foods, individually sold candies, and prepared foods that include sulfites in amounts under 10 ppm. Medications may also contain sulfites. Plastic bags and other packaging may be sanitized with sulfites.

Likely places you’ll find sulfites:

Fruit products (juice, pulp, syrup, salad, spreads, candied fruit, fruity ice cream, fruit fillings, canned fruit and dehydrated fruit)

Vegetable products (juice, canned or dehydrated vegetables, dried ginger root)

Instant soup

Instant mashed potatoes

Dried fruit (banana, apricots, coconut)

Jams

Jellies

Marmalades

Pickles

Relish

Beer (including non-alcoholic versions)

Wine (including non-alcoholic versions)

Cider

Cider vinegar

Canned crabmeat

Powdered garlic

Concentrated pineapple juice

Caramel coloring

Bleached cod

Bleached white sugar

Some frozen foods (potatoes, sliced mushrooms, sliced apples, shrimp, prawn, lobster)

Pudding with gelatin

Sausage

Soft drinks

Pectin

Dextrose

Molasses

Tomato products (paste, pulp, ketchup, puree)

Grapes

Code words for sulfites on the ingredient label:

Sodium sulfite

Sulfur dioxide

Sodium bisulfite

Potassium bisulfite

Sodium metabisulfite

Potassium metabisulfite

Sulfurous acid

As mentioned, according to the FDA, sulfites in amounts greater than 10 ppm, whether natural or artificial, must be listed in the ingredients statement. Be sure to read all ingredient labels carefully before purchasing or consuming any food item.

Resources:

Moon, M. The Elimination Diet Workbook. A Personal Approach to Determining Your Food Allergies. Ulysses Press, 2014.

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