Sulphites: What are they?

Red wine, grapes and cheese. Lavaux region, Switzerland
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If you read ingredient labels when you’re grocery shopping, way to go! It’s a great way to build awareness of what’s actually in the processed food you’re eating.

On the other hand, a lot of it looks like reading something out of a science fiction novel, doesn’t it? That’s why I started a series of posts on common ingredients that might trip you up when you’re browsing in the grocery store, like aspartame, “natural” flavour and soy lecithin. It’s my way of helping you cut through the nonsense and really get to know your food.

This week I’m tackling a very common additive in processed food that is one of Canada’s top ten priority food allergens: Sulphites!

What are sulphites?

Sulphites are used as a preservative to maintain colour, fight microbial activity and preserve shelf life. Manufacturers use a lot of names for these alien chemicals. Most of them have “sulphite” tucked away somewhere in there (like “sodium metabisulphite”), but also be on the lookout for sodium dithionite, sulphur dioxide and sulphurous acid.

Where can sulphites be hiding?

You can find sulphites in almost everything, but some common sources are:

•    Wine, beer, cider and (including non-alcoholic versions)
•    Canned or frozen fruits or vegetables, juices and concentrates
•    Cereal, crackers, and frozen, pre-cut potato products
•    Dried herbs, spices and teas
•    Non organic dried fruit (for example raisins or apricots)
•    Vinegar, condiments and cornstarch
•    Medication

Where do they come from?

Sulphites do occur naturally and have been understood to function as a preservative for over three hundred years. In fact, even our own cells produce them. Because of this long history, many experts (especially wine experts) do not believe there is any risk associated with their use.

Modern sulphite preservatives, however, are created in a lab from various chemicals. The commercial product looks something like salt. The trouble with this approach is that it’s pretty easy to get carried away when you’re adding in additional chemicals rather than relying on nature to produce what your body needs.

What do sulphites do to your body?

Although sulphites are said to be generally considered safe to use, I believe they are something everyone should avoid if possible. About one in ten people have some kind of immediate reaction to them. If you are one of these people, you might experience a rash, hives, an upset stomach, or difficulty breathing.

About one in a hundred people suffer from sulphite sensitivity, which can cause very serious allergic reactions – including anaphylactic shock. If you suffer from asthma, liver or kidney dysfunction, food safety authorities in the US and the UK (FDA / DEFRA) recommend that sulphites should be avoided.

Sulphites reduce the nutritional quality of your food, destroying beneficial bacteria, vitamin E and vitamin B1 (thiamine). If you’re eating a lot of food containing sulphites, remember to replenish these vitamins with plant-based food sources.

If you’re concerned about sulphites, there’s no better way to avoid additives and preservatives of all kinds than getting into the kitchen and making your own meals from non-processed and organic plant-based food!

Want an easy way to get started? Check out my Breakfast Reboot – 14 Day Breakfast Plan loaded with awesome ‘how-to’ action recipes to fuel you right and discover how to live additive free. Oh Yeah!

Do you have a sulphite story to share? Is there another ingredient you would like me to highlight in a future post? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below, or drop by my Facebook Page and strike up a conversation!

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About Adam Hart

Adam Hart is the author of The Power of Food, which shares the secrets of achieving optimum health through living, plant-based foods. International speaker, chef and champion of intention-based living, Adam shows his readers how to awaken an abundance of energy and vitality without giving up their favourite foods. A lover of the great outdoors, Adam spends his free time trekking the mountains of British Columbia. Get the full story here...

  • Tamara

    I am highly sensitive to sulfites. I have experienced scary dystonic reactions where I lose control of my muscles mostly in my face and neck, my tongue swells up and I can barely breath. The strongest reaction occurred from medication but my body experiences unpleasant side affects from foods and wine as well.

    • http://poweroffood.com Adam Hart

      Hello Tamara

      Thank you for sharing you experience with sulphites. I know reactions are quite common when consumed so they are best avoided when possible. How did you link your reactions to sulphites?

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