Sulphites and Asthma Sufferers
The subject of food additives is of great interest to all those who are concerned about what is being done to our food during processing. There is increasing evidence that sulphite use and consequently sulphite allergy is on the rise. Sulphite allergy is dangerous to those who suffer from asthma, particularly childhood asthma.
Food additives are found in virtually all foodstuffs today. Attempts to meet consumer expectations have seen a rise in the use of substances which will preserve the life, improve the taste, brighten the colour, and improve the texture of processed foods. Additives are also used to thicken and to prevent separation of fats and water.
Sulphites have been used since time immemorial for the preservation of food. The Greeks and Romans used sulphites as a preservative in wine. Almost all wine today contains some sulphites.
However it was not until the 1880s the Australian and South American beef producers began using sulphites in beef products shipped to England. With the growth of processed foods in the 20th century, sulphites began to make their appearance in many processed products.
Sulphites are derived from coal tar. Sulphite based products include sulphur dioxide, sodium sulphite, sodium bisulphite, sodium metabisulphite, potassium metabisulphite, potassium sulphite, and potassium bisulphite.
The sulphite group of additives is used to sterilise food containers, as antimicrobial preservatives, antioxidants, firming agents and bleaching agents. Those who suffer from asthma can be particularly sensitive to sulphites, with sulphur dioxide being potentially fatal. Intolerance to sulphites may manifest as headaches, gastric irritation, liver toxicity, nausea, irritable bowel syndrome, skin rashes and swelling, behavioural problems, and diarrhoea.
Sulphites destroy thiamine (Vitamin B1). Meats, cereals and dairy foods are significant sources of thiamine. Because of this factor, in 1959 USA placed a total ban on the use of sulphites in meats. Sulphites have been shown to trigger asthma attacks in some people. Interestingly, since banning sulphites in 1959, the USA now has a lower asthma rate than any other developed English speaking country. The well publicised ‘salad bar deaths’ of the 1970s and 80s occurred as a result of eating salads sprayed with sulphites. Use of sulphites in this way was banned in the USA in 1986.
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In Australia, thiamine deficiency is relatively common in pet dogs and cats, due to pet meat being treated with sulphites. Research in Australia in 1984 found 65% of asthmatic children were sensitive to sulphites.
Food additives assessed for use within the European Union are given an ‘E (Europe) number’. Australian additives have the same numbers but without the E prefix.
Sulphites are covered by the numbers 220 to 228. E224 potassium metabisulphite is often used in wine-making as an antimicrobial preservative. Additive 220 is a suspected mutagen (interferes with DNA).
In America the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for controlling labelling of foods. Additives may be listed as ‘Generally recognised as safe’ or GRAS.
Sulphites are not always mentioned in the labelling. Many processed foods including cookies, snacks, fruit flavoured breakfast cereals, muesli bars, ice-cream, yoghurt and confectionary contain sulphites but the additive may not be listed on the label. It is often present in processed deli meats, cordials, pickled products, dried tree fruits (such as apricots, peaches, pears and apples) and jams. Dates, figs, prunes and sultanas may be sulphite free. Wines, beers and ciders almost all contain sulphites.
Sulphites at lower levels than 10ppm are not required to be listed on packaging but small amounts all add up to unacceptable levels for those sensitive to sulphites.
Luckily fresh fruit and vegetables are sulphite free. Eating fresh food as much as possible will reduce your intake of sulphites and you will be all the better for it.