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Sulfites are commonly blamed as the culprit behind wine-drinking headaches. While that hasn’t been confirmed, sulfites can be the cause of some other serious problems. These food additives have long been used to preserve freshness and are ingredients in many foods, beverages, cosmetics, and medications. They also occur naturally in some foods. Innocent as this may make them seem, these sulfur-based compounds can trigger allergy symptoms in some people, especially those with asthma. Here’s what you need to know if you suspect a sensitivity to wine or other common sulfite-containing foods.
What Are Sulfites?
Sulfites are used as preservatives to slow the browning and discoloration in foods and beverages during each step of processing—preparation, storage, and distribution. They also occur naturally as a byproduct of fermentation, such as in wine-making. In wine-making, sulfites have been added for centuries to help ensure freshness and prevent oxidation. But they are added to many foods as an inexpensive, convenient method of limiting spoilage. Sulfites are used in most processed foods, but law prevents them from being used on foods meant to be eaten raw, such as fresh vegetables and fruits.
Sulfite Sensitivity and Symptoms
Less than 1% of the U.S. population experiences sulfite sensitivity, according to the Food and Drug Administration. But the likelihood increases for people who suffer from asthma—about 5-10%–especially those on steroid medications. Reactions occur after eating or drinking foods with sulfites, or inhaling the fumes from them. Sulfites may trigger asthma symptoms, including wheezing, chest tightness, coughing, and shortness of breath. Symptoms may also include:
- severe respiratory reaction
- feeling of temperature change
- difficulty swallowing
- contact dermatitis
What Foods Contain Sulfites?
Sulfites are present in most processed foods. Food labels must list them if they are in concentrations of more than 10 parts per million. If used as a preservative, or for specific functions in a food, labels must list them at any level. Check labels for these sulfite-containing ingredients on foods, beverages, cosmetics, and medications:
- Sulfur dioxide
- Potassium bisulfite
- Potassium metabisulfite
- Sodium bisulfite
- Sodium metabisulfite
- Sodium sulfite
Major types of foods and drinks that may contain sulfites include:
Drinks: Bottled soft drinks and fruit juice, cordials, cider, beer, wine (including sparkling wine)
Other liquids: Commercial preparations of lemon and lime juice, vinegar, grape juice
Fruits: Dried apricots, fruit bars
Commercial foods: Dried potatoes, gravies, sauces and fruit toppings, maraschino cherries, pickled onions, sauerkraut, pickles, maple syrup, jams, jellies, biscuits, bread, pie and pizza dough
Salads and fruit salads
Meats: Deli meats, mincemeat, sausages
Other foods: Gelatin, coconut
Beyond foods and beverages, sulfites may also be present in cosmetics—hair color, moisturizers, face and body washes, perfumes, blush—and pharmaceuticals—anti-fungal and corticosteroid creams and ointments, antibiotics, eye drops, some inhaler solutions, and more.
How to Avoid Sulfites
Sulfite-safe foods are whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables and other unprocessed foods in their whole, natural form. All packaged foods could contain even low levels of sulfites, so scanning the ingredients label is a must. There are some products, including wine, which are purposely produced without sulfites and may be labeled “sulfite-free.”