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Should You Be Worried About Sulfites in Food and Wine?

Does wine give you a headache? Don't blame the sulfites. Find out what problems sulfites do (and don't) cause and whether you need to avoid them.

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS,
April 5, 2010
Episode #088

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What do wine, dried apricots, grape juice, bottled lemon juice, molasses, and cocktail onions have in common? If you have a sulfite allergy, you’ll recognize this list right away. All of these foods are high in sulfites.

What Are Sulfites?

Sulfites are preservatives and antioxidants. They’re used to keep dried fruit like apricots from turning brown and to prevent unwanted bacteria from spoiling the wine. They also occur naturally in foods. Sulfites don’t cause problems for the vast majority of people; but about one in every hundred people is sensitive or allergic to them. If you have asthma, your chances of sulfite sensitivity are quite a bit higher, about one in ten.

The most common reaction to sulfites is something like an asthma attack. Well, actually the most common reaction to sulfites is no reaction at all. But for those who are sensitive to them, consuming sulfites can cause breathing difficulties and, less commonly, hives or other allergy-like symptoms. These reactions can range from so mild you might not even notice them to quite severe. In very rare cases, a reaction can be life-threatening.

What Causes Bad Reactions to Sulfite?

It’s not uncommon for people to develop a sulfite allergy or sensitivity in their forties or fifties.

We’re not one hundred percent sure what causes some people to react badly to sulfites. In some people it appears to be a classic allergic reaction, like a shellfish allergy. For others, it may be that they are missing an enzyme required to break down and metabolize the sulfites—the same way that dogs lack the enzyme needed to breakdown compounds in chocolate.

It’s also not uncommon for people to develop a sulfite allergy or sensitivity in mid-life. 

Which Foods Contain Sulfites?

If you’re sensitive to sulfites, it’s a good idea to avoid high-sulfite foods like dried fruit and wine. And if you’re very sensitive, you may also need to avoid foods like shrimp, maple syrup, and mushrooms, which have only moderate amounts of sulfites.

New regulations have made it a little easier to avoid sulfites. For example, restaurants used to treat the raw vegetables in salad bars with sulfites to keep them looking fresh. There’d be nothing to warn sulfite-sensitive diners; and servers, if asked, were not always reliable sources of information. Now, restaurants and grocery stores can no longer add sulfites to fresh foods. Packaged foods that contain sulfites above a certain low threshold must include that information on the label.

Nonetheless, you still have to be fairly savvy and vigilant to minimize your contact with sulfites. Below you’ll find links to lists of foods that are high, medium, and low in sulfites as well as tips for sleuthing out stealth sources of sulfites.

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