Catch-Up Mondays: What are sulfites? Why do we need them?

This was the second post in my sulfite series.  It was originally shared on February 1, 2013.  It is amazing the number of ways sulfites can be listed.  It is like corn (hydrolyzed vegetable protein, food starch, etc.) and wheat (food starch, maltodextrin).  There are so many ways these items are hidden in labeling.

Sulfites or sulfates are preservatives used in various foods and medications. They have been used for centuries as food additives but can occur naturally in fermented beverages and wines. Sulfites (a group of chemical compounds including sulfur and oxygen) are found in such forms as sodium sulfite, sodium bisulfite, sodium metabisulfite, potassium bisulfite and potassium metabisulfite.

Sulfites are known to increase asthma symptoms in approximately 5% of asthmatics especially adults with severe asthma.  According to an article on about.com less is known about hives/swelling and anaphylaxis as a result of sulfites (guess they haven’t seen me in action). I have read that it is not completely known how sulfites cause reactions in certain people. Some make allergic antibodies and others do not. Gases generated from sulfites can cause muscle spasms in the lungs of some asthmatics. Some people may not metabolize the sulfites appropriately.  I believe this is what happens to me which might explain not only the asthma symptoms but the severe stomach cramping and flushing.  While some have been diagnosed with sulfite allergy using skin testing, it seems that there is no reliable commercially available skin test for sulfite allergy.  The diagnosis is most often based on a history of adverse reactions to foods containing sulfites.  I never thought to ask Dr. William Rea while I was at the Environmental Health Center-Dallas if he had a test for sulfites. 

For me even more concerning is that sulfites are added to some medications for their antioxidant properties.  I carry an epi-pen with me in case my histamine injections are not enough to stop a severe reaction.  Sulfites are added to injectable epinephrine to prevent browning which can decrease the effectiveness of the epinephrine.  While this is not optimal for someone with a sulfite sensitivity, it is widely felt that the life saving benefits of the epinephrine out way the sulfites in it.    I also have a rescue inhaler.  Sulfites can be in some inhaler solutions while many of them now no longer contain sulfites due to safety concerns.

Yesterday I mentioned that at the time of my diagnosis of sulfite sensitivity, they were being used regularly in stores and salad bars on fresh foods and there were no required labels on packaged goods.  In 1986 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the use of sulfites in salad bars particularly on fresh lettuce (potatoes still do not have a ban on them).  It also required foods containing more than 10 ppm (parts per million) to be declared on food labels.  Experts are not yet sure how much sulfite is enough to cause a reaction or what mechanisms might cause the reaction.  Again as I mentioned previously, for those who don’t know the degree of sensitivity, this may not be enough to make packaged food safe for them.  Many restaurants use potato products and it is, therefore, recommended that potatoes with the exception of baked potatoes (skin on) be avoided for sulfite sensitive individuals.

Is this getting your attention on the seriousness of sulfite and sulfite sensitivities like mine?  I knew when I started researching and pulling everything together it was going to be too much information to absorb in a single post.  So, what foods can have sulfites added?  What medications?  Stay tuned for my next post or posts.

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3 responses to “Catch-Up Mondays: What are sulfites? Why do we need them?

  1. Reblogged this on sondasmcschatter and commented:
    THANKS FOR SHARING KATHRYN!!!!!!!!!1

  2. Kathy: Thanks for your very informative post. I did not know that epinephrine has sulfites. What a choice for someone with severe reactions and sensitivity to sulfites! Jennie

  3. It’s exhausting trying to keep up with everything that one can react to that is put in our food and medication. Thanks for keeping us informed. 😀

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