Home Food & Drink What are Sulfites and What Are Their Health Effects?

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After recent laws and regulations that force food and beverage manufacturers to state the amount of sulfites contained in their products, people have started a crusade against these substances. But what are sulfites? The problem is that the specifications are unclear, and people fear things they don’t understand. There hasn’t been any reliable scientific proof to show that sulfites are inherently bad for regular people, but still a lot of consumers believe that these substances cause headaches or other associated symptoms.

The truth is there are different types of sulfites with specific effects, some of them naturally present in our fruits and wines. They are mostly harmless to people who do not suffer from asthma or similar conditions, and they help preserve out food. So, what are sulfites? If you want to get a clear idea and understand the nature of these chemicals, read our article, and you will be able to make up your own mind.

What are sulfites?

Sulfites or sulphites are chemicals that can be found in various foods, either as a natural component or additives. They are compounds and contain a sulfite ion, which is the base for bisulfite. Recently, people have been increasingly more worried about the allergenic hazards that these substances may produce, but their worries are mainly unfounded.

The confusion comes from the lack of proper understanding of terminology. A label marked “May contain sulfites” may turn customers away at first sight, but why? Sulfites are naturally present in most wines, and they are also used as added preservatives for various foods.

FDA Regulations and Health Effects

The trouble for sulfites started in 1986 when the substance was identified as an allergen by the FDA. This happened after cases of asthma were linked to the intake of sulfites and as a result, the FDA banned them from fresh fruits and vegetables. The problem is that sulfites are commonly used as preservatives in various foods, so after the ban, they have been replaced with increased quantities of salt and erythorbic acid.

At the same time, it was required for sulfites quantities to be clearly marked on the labels of wine bottles if they go beyond 10mg/L. In the US, the presence of sulfites has to be indicated on the label if they have been used specifically as preservatives, and not simply added at the regular food processing stage.

However, many companies prefer to state the presence of sulfites in their product to avoid any liability in the case of eventual lawsuits. Regardless of this, the law only requires the chemicals to be listed only if the quantity present in the finished product goes beyond 10 parts per million (PPM).

Sulfites in wine – bad or good?

Red wine glasses on the table

Sulfites have been used for wine preserving and fermentation control since Roman times because they are responsible for stopping your favorite wine from turning to vinegar. Because wines are volatile, they need preservatives to ensure that they don’t go bad after you open the bottle. Sulfur has been used in wineries to stop the growth of various bacteria and yeasts, and also because it helps achieve the perfect red color of the wine.

The PPM number varies depending on different factors such as the production method and also the color of the wine. The wine sulfites range from 10 to 40 PPM, which qualifies as no-added-sulfur to 350 PPM. As a rule of thumb, red wines contain less sulfur than clear wines, while the sweeter wines need more than the dry ones to prevent fermentation.

After answering the main question of what are wine sulfites, we need to see what’s all the fuss about. Knowing that sulfites are a normal presence in wine raises the question: should we worry about it? Well, specialists say that unless you suffer from asthma or have a high sensitivity to foods, there’s no reason for you to give up wine.

What Food Products May Contain Sulfites?

Sulfites are present in large quantities in the products that traditionally require preservation, such as frozen juices or jams. They can be found in dried fruits or packaged potato products like French fries. In general, everything that has to or can be stored for longer periods of time contains a various quantity of sulfites. Prepared soups, packaged meats, and even soda have sulfites in them, so there are not only present in wine, as people used to think.

The so-called “sulfite sensitivity” is not really an allergy, although people have been complaining about it. Some people are under the impression that sulfites are to blame for the headaches caused by wine drinking, but scientific research doesn’t agree with this supposition.

If you think you are affected by sulfites and want to avoid these chemicals you should start with products that contain them in more quantities than wine.  Taking into account that sulfites are present in the over-processed foods that we all consume, a good idea would be to start reducing the quantity of packaged foods that you eat, before letting go of wine for good.

Sulfites got bad publicity after being associated with breathing difficulties for asthmatics and possibly sufferers of salicylate sensitivity. These categories are the ones who are at risk and can experience allergic reactions to sulfites, although life-threatening situations seldom occur. The witch hunt for sulfites began out of concern for public health, but studies have shown that these substances are just as bad or good as other preservatives such as salts we most commonly use.

In the end, sulfites are present in our foods, in various quantities, so avoiding them is virtually impossible. If you are among the categories that have a higher sensibility to these substances, you should undoubtedly pay attention to the labels and eliminate sulfites from your diet, but if not, there aren’t many reasons to worry.

You have now discovered the answers to the pressing question: what are sulfites? At the moment, it’s up to you to decide whether or not you should avoid high-content sulfites products such as dried fruits and potato chips. Just remember that the claim that red wine headaches are caused by sulfites is not supported by science, so you probably shouldn’t blame sulfites for your painful hangover.

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A2K Team

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