Sulfites Sulfate and Sulfur Food Additives
Sulfites Sulfate and Sulfur
This article is primarily about sulfites, but to get there we should define some terms and hopefully reduce some confusion about the different types of sulfur compounds.
Sulfates are salts of sulfuric acid, commonly used in the making of various drugs, such as albuterol sulfate, iron sulfate, chondroitin sulfate and codeine sulfate. Experts say that any allergic reaction to these medicines is probably not due to the sulfate. There does not appear to be any reason for people with sulfa or sulfite allergies to avoid medications that contain a sulfate salt, but of course caution is always advisable.
Sulfite-Free Sun Dried Tomatoes - Julienne Strips
Sulfur is a mineral used in the production of many drugs, gunpowder, fertilizers and other commercial chemicals. Sulfa drugs, sulfite preservatives, and sulfates are all derived from sulfur. Sulfur is essential element for all life and organically bonded sulfur is a component of all proteins. No one is allergic to sulfur, and to be allergic you would be allergic to your own flesh, but about 10% of the population is allergic to derivatives of sulfur. There does not appear to be a reason for people with sulfa and/or sulfite allergy to specifically avoid sulfur-containing compounds.
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Dried fruit with and without sulfites
Sulfites are food additives used in processed foods to enhance flavor and preserve freshness. Food processors use sulfites to reduce or prevent spoilage and discoloration during the preparation, storage and distribution of foods. Products treated include processed potatoes, dried fruits, grape juices (white, white sparkling, pink sparkling, and red sparkling), bottled lemon and limejuice, dehydrated vegetables and some seafood, especially shellfish. If you have a sulfite allergy, exercise caution when buying shrimp. Sometimes shrimp are treated on the fishing boat with sulfites and sulfites may not appear on the label. Sulfites retard browning and inhibit the deterioration of such nutrients as vitamin C. Sulfites are also used to bleach food starches, (your corn starch, besides being genetically modified has some sulfites in it) as a dough conditioner in certain baked goods, to control fermentation of wine and to soften corn kernels during the wet-milling process.
Apples, bananas, pears, peaches, eggplant, and avocados and others contain an enzyme; polyphenoloxydase, when these foods are cut the enzyme oxidizes polymers on the surface and condenses into brown or gray polymers. This enzyme is not present in foods like melons, tomatoes and citrus. This explains why some foods do not turn brown as rapidly. When a processor adds sufites, they combine with the polymers on the surface and slow down the browning reaction so this is why we use sulfites.
Wine has natural sulfites
Sulfites also occur naturally in some beer, wine, fruit and vegetable juices. The FDA estimates that one out of 100 people is sensitive to the various sulfites, for sensitive people a reaction can be mild or life threatening. In 1986, the FDA banned the use of sulfites on fresh foods. Up until ’86 restaurants and industry used them to preserve the fresh appearance of foods like salads and sliced apples. When sulfites are used in processed foods, they have to be on the label, depending on amounts present in the finished product. In foods where sulfit occurs naturally there may be no such warning. Since July 9, 1987, warning labels have been required on all alcoholic beverages with at least 10 ppm of sulfites. Sulfites used in food processing but not specifically added as a preservative are only required to be listed if there are more than 10 parts per million (ppm) in the finished product. Currently, sulfiting agents are not considered GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) for use in meats, foods recognized as a major source of vitamin B-1 (sulfites have been found to destroy thiamin ), or “fruits or vegetables intended to be served raw to consumers or to be presented to consumers as fresh.” (FDA, 1988b) The USDA prohibits the use of sulfites on meat because they may give an appearance of “false freshness” by restoring the red color to raw meat.
According to studies at the University of Wisconsin Clinical Sciences Center, Dr. Robert Bush, A leading researcher, believes that most sulfite-sensitive asthmatics do not react to residues (sulfites remaining in food after treatment) below 100 parts per million. This research is ongoing.
Sulfite Free Organic Pineapple
Symptoms of Sulfite Allergy
A person experiencing an allergic reaction may have any of the following symptoms:
- Flushed face, hives or a rash, red and itchy skin
- Swelling of the eyes, face, lips, throat and tongue
- Trouble breathing, speaking or swallowing
- Anxiety, distress, faintness, paleness, sense of doom, weakness
- Cramps, diarrhea, vomiting
- A drop in blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, loss of consciousness
Sulfite test strips
Sulfate test strips
FDA regulations, require manufacturers to include a warning label on all prescription drugs to which sulfites have been added. Sulfites need not be listed on the labels of over-the-counter products so sulfite-sensitive individuals should contact the manufacturer to determine whether sulfites are used in specific over-the-counter products.
These are the six used by the food industry:
1. sulfur dioxide,
2. sodium sulfite,
3. sodium bisulfite,
4. potassium bisulfite,
5. sodium metabisulfite
6. potassium metabisulfite.
Have you ever seen a dried apricot that was not preserved with sulfur dioxide? They are stiff, brown and unappealing although they taste better than they look. Unsulfured dried fruits are available in specialty stores for those that are sensitive to sulfur preservatives. Mainstream stores mostly carry dried fruits treated with sulfur dioxide gas: apricots, peaches, pears, figs and apples. With the current interest in organic food and healthy eating this is beginning to change, so you may find some unsulfured foods in your market.
Dates, prunes and dried pineapple may or may not be preserved with sulfur. Coconut prepared commercially is usually treated with sulfites but again you can look for organic and find sulfur free. Sulfited coconut may be shredded, flaked or powered and is used in candies, cookies, cakes and Pina Colada cocktails. Your first defense should always be to read the label.
Fresh lemons and limes contain no sulfites, and they do a good job of preventing scurvy, so, if you are planning a long ocean voyage with Black Beard, take some lemons. Bottled juices are heavily preserved with sodium bisulfite to prevent browning, so maybe you have to ask Black Beard to put in a store of fresh citrus, nobody likes a Scurvy Pirate! If you are sensitive and you see a lemon-based salad dressing in a restaurant, it might be best to avoid it, many but certainly not all restaurants would use bottled lemon juice.
Sugars, cane, beet, brown, powdered and molasses
Sugar comes in many forms: cane and beet, white and brown, granulated and powdered. Granulated cane sugar, probably the most common sugar used, is relatively low in naturally occurring sulfites, and is generally okay for those with sulfite allergies. Brown cane sugar is likewise low in sulfites. Beet sugar, however, requires more attention. Beet sugar often bleached with sulfur dioxide to make it whiter. Brown beet sugar is simply white beet sugar, which has had cane molasses added to it to make it brown. Neither is a good choice for someone with sulfite sensitivities.
Powdered sugar is nothing more than regular granulated sugar, ground fine with small amounts of cornstarch added to it. For those unaware, cornstarch is always bleached with sulfites.
Unsulfured molasses created by the cane process is quite low in sulfites. Unfortunately, other forms like blackstrap are sulfured and can have levels near 100 ppm. Simply look for unsulfured molasses. Table and pancake syrups are almost all made with corn syrup, lots of it. Some are even darkened with sulfited caramel color. I usually use real maple syrup or honey because bees don’t like sulfur either.
Now for the good news. Chocolate hides a sulfur content that can be quite high depending on the form of chocolate. People do not add it; blame Mother Nature. All chocolate starts out as a cocoa bean, which is pressed to yield chocolate liquor and cocoa butter. Chocolate liquor mixed with cocoa butter is the familiar bitter baking chocolate; chocolate without the cocoa butter is ground into cocoa. All is not lost for the person allergic to sulfites because the sulfur in chocolate is elemental sulfur, not sulfites. A sensitive person may or may not react to chocolate.
If you have a strong allergic reaction to sulfites you may already know some ways to avoid the substances. However, even with today's technology, food recalls due to undeclared sulfite (as a food ingredient) continue to occur in the United States.
In a glaring example of the inefficiencies of government the FDA regulates sulfite use in drugs and food, except for meat and poultry, which fall under the purview of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Unless it’s in wine or alcoholic beverages, when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) regulates the use. On the other hand the use of sulfur dioxide as a fungicide on grapes comes under the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
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