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Could You Be Allergic to Sulfites?

About Sulfites

dinner meal eating Sulfites are chemicals that are often used to preserve some foods and drinks. They are also used in some medicines and cosmetics.

Safety

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) labels sulfites as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). But, there are limits on how they can be used. The FDA does not allow them on the raw veggies that are found at salad bars. This is because sulfites would make them look fresh when they might not be. The FDA also requires that sulfites be listed on the labels of food, drinks, and medicines. They did so after reports of people having allergic-like reactions after eating or drinking a product that contained sulfites.

Sulfite Sensitivity

The number of people who are sensitive to sulfites is low. People with asthma seem to be at higher risk.

Mild to severe problems after consuming or applying a product with sulfites may be:

  • Skin problems—itchy skin, rash, and hives
  • Digestive problems—stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • Breathing problems—wheezing, cough, and tightness in the chest

Rarely, a deadly reaction called anaphylactic shock may happen.

How It is Diagnosed

A doctor who treats allergies can diagnose a sulfite sensitivity with a food challenge. This means giving the person a small amount of sulfites and watching for a reaction. If the person does not have a reaction, the amount they are given will slowly be increased. If the person does have a reaction, medicine will be given to treat it. Tests will also be done to check lung function. A food challenge should only be done by a doctor who treats allergies.

Avoiding Sulfites

A person who is sensitive to sulfates should do their best to try to avoid them. This can be hard, since they are common in many foods and come in lots of forms.

Here are some ways to live sulfite-free.

What to Look For

Many products contain sulfites, so be sure to check the food label. They can be found in:

  • Beer, wine, and soft drinks
  • Cookies, crackers, pie crust, and pizza crust
  • Dried fruit
  • Shrimp, lobster, and scallops
  • French fries and other food made with peeled potatoes, such as instant mashed potatoes
  • Fruit or veggie juice
  • Canned fruits or veggies
  • Syrup and fruit toppings
  • Pickles, relish, olives, and salad dressing
  • Noodle or rice mixes, dried soup mixes

Food made from bulk items would have the sulfites listed on the package. One example is bread bought at a bakery. The store should list sulfites on the bread’s label. A person who has any questions should ask the staff about it. The same approach can be used when dining out by asking the waiter or chef.

Sulfite-Free Choices

Sulfite is a common preservative. It can be hard to fill a kitchen with sulfite-free products. But there are choices, like specialty grocery stores and websites that sell health foods.

Sulfites in Medicine

Sulfites are added to many prescription and over the counter medicines. It is often found in drugs used to treat asthma and allergies. Be sure to read drug labels. A doctor and pharmacist can help answer any questions.

Be Prepared

A person with sulfite sensitivity should talk to their doctor about whether they need to carry emergency medicine. A medic alert bracelet can also be worn to let others know that the person has a food allergy.

RESOURCES:

American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology
https://www.aaaai.org

Food Allergy Research & Education
https://www.foodallergy.org

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Canadian Society Of Allergy and Clinical Immunology
https://csaci.ca

Health Canada
https://www.canada.ca

REFERENCES:

Allergic and asthmatic reactions to food additives. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:https://www.dynamed.com/condition/allergic-and-asthmatic-reactions-to-food-additives. Accessed August 24, 2020.

Allergy testing. American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology website. Available at: http://acaai.org/allergies/treatment/allergy-testing. Accessed August 24, 2020.

Grotheer P, Marshall M, et al. Sulfites: Separating fact from fiction. University of Florida website. Available at: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/fy731. Accessed August 24, 2020.

Sulfites: FDA guide to foods and drugs with sulfties. The Extension Toxicology Network website. Available at: http://extoxnet.orst.edu/faqs/additive/sulf_tbl.htm. August 24, 2020.

Sulphites—priority allergens. Health Canada website. Available at: https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/food-nutrition/reports-publications/food-safety/sulphites-priority-allergens.html. August 24, 2020.

Last reviewed March 2020 by EBSCO Medical Review BoardDianne Scheinberg Rishikof MS, RD, LDN  Last Updated: 3/2/2021