Sulphite Sensitivity Unleashed: Embracing a Sulphite-Free Diet for Im…

Sulphites are compounds that can be found naturally in food, but are also used extensively as an additive to food or a preserving agent in medications. Sulphites may be added to food to prevent bacteria growth, preserve colour (an anti-browning agent) in fruit and vegetables or to preserve the food itself. 

Why might someone worry about sulphites?

Sulphites, even in large quantities, do not cause issues for most people without asthma. Between 3% to 10% of people with asthma can see their asthma symptoms increase after exposure. 

The most common adverse reactions include wheezing, chest tightness and coughing. These symptoms are more prominent in those with poorly controlled asthma. 

Sulphites can also sometimes cause a more severe reaction with hives/swelling and even anaphylaxis

Experts think the reasons behind these adverse reactions could be a lack of the enzyme required to break down the sulfite. The gases sulfites generate in the body may also contribute to a lung-muscle spasm in asthmatics.  

Can sulphites in medications cause a reaction?

Yes. Many medications contain sulphites to prevent discoloration, so be sure to check with the pharmacist. They are added to EpiPens to prevent browning, however epinephrine injections do not cause allergic reactions in people with a sulphite allergy, so do not withhold an EpiPen in an emergency. It may save someone’s life. 

Is sensitivity to sulfites different from an allergy to sulfonamide antibiotics?

Yes. Allergic reactions to sulfonamide or sulfa antibiotics are very different from a sulphite sensitivity. The two words sound similar, but are unrelated. 

How is a sulphite sensitivity diagnosed?

A food challenge (a test for whether an individual can tolerate a specific food) under the supervision of an allergy or immunology specialist can confirm a diagnosis, but most often the specialist will diagnose the condition based on symptoms. Currently there is no reliable blood or skin allergy test that can diagnose a sulphite sensitivity. 

How to manage a sulfite sensitivity

The best way to manage a sulphite sensitivity is to avoid food that contains high levels of sulfites. Alternatively if you suffer from asthma, optimising your control of your asthma by using asthma medications as advised by your doctor can also help manage this sensitivity. 

What particular foods contain high levels of sulphites?

Foods that usually contain sulphites include dried fruits and vegetables, pickled foods, maple syrup, jams, fruit juices, and wine. In most countries, it is illegal to add sulphites to fresh fruit, vegetables and minced/sausage meats. 

How can I tell if my food is high in sulphites?

Under the Food Standards Code, packaged foods that contain more than 10mg/kg of sulfites need to have a contains sulphites declaration on the packaging label with code numbers 220 through 228. 

To complement this, use myWellaBee to search for food that is free from sulfites using the ‘sulfite free’ filter. 

  1. Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA), (2021). Sulfite Sensitivity Frequently Asked Questions. 

  2. Vally H, Misso NL. Adverse reactions to the sulfite additives. Gastroenterol Hepatol Bed Bench. 2012 Winter;5(1):16-23. PMID: 24834193; PMCID: PMC4017440. Date accessed 7 September 2022.

  3. Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), (2019). sulfites. 

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