Could you be sulfite sensitive and not know it? Sensitivity to sulfites is not an uncommon problem. It’s estimated that one percent of the population suffers from being sulfite sensitive. Sulfite sensitivity can make its appearance at any age, sometimes not declaring itself until well into middle age. Sometimes sulfite sensitivities are obvious, manifesting with severe wheezing after eating or drinking a food or beverage containing sulfites. Other times the symptoms can be subtle with mild abdominal discomfort, nausea, diarrhea, persistent headache or skin irritation after being exposed to sulfites. In some cases, a person can visit several doctors before being found to be sulfite sensitive.
What Are Sulfites?
Sulfites are inorganic salts that are frequently used as preservatives in foods. They also occur naturally in beer and wine products as a result of the fermentation process used to make them. It’s not always easy to tell whether a packed food contains sulfites since manufacturers are required to list sulfites on the label only if they’re added to the finished product. If sulfite is contained in one of the ingredients used in the product, it won’t specify this on the label. Sulfites are found in a variety of packaged food products of all types. It’s used to preserve dried fruits and is almost always present in wine. Sulfites were previously used on fresh produce, but have since been banned. Some medications, particularly eye drops, also contain sulfites. Because of how common sulfites are in products, it can be difficult for the sulfite sensitive person to easily avoid exposure.
How Can You Tell If You’re Sulfite Sensitive?
People who have asthma are at higher risk of being sulfite sensitive. One of the best ways to determine whether a sulfite sensitivity is present is to keep a food diary. If itching, wheezing, throat tightness, nausea, or diarrhea occur after eating processed food or drinks, dried fruits, or after drinking wine; sulfite sensitivity is a possibility. Unfortunately, making the diagnosis of sulfite sensitivity can be difficult because allergy tests are not positive with this condition. In some cases, sulfite challenges can be used under medical supervision to help clinch the diagnosis.
How Is Sulfite Sensitivity Treated?
The only treatment for sulfite sensitivity is complete avoidance. The easiest way to avoid sulfites is to stay away from packaged, processed foods such as soup mixes, packaged gelatins, gravy mixes, baked goods, jams, jellies, fruit toppings, and dried potatoes. This is only a partial list of foods that contain sulfites. Liquid products to avoid include packaged fruit juices, maple syrup, beers, and all wines. Dried fruits and shrimp should also be avoided. Restaurant dining can be a problem, particularly for restaurants that use packaged foods and mixes. Salad bars at some restaurants and grocery stores occasionally use spray on sulfites to make the fruits and vegetables look fresher. One way to reduce the risk of exposure to sulfites is to buy organic foods and beverages since sulfites are not allowed in organic products.
Being sulfite sensitive an unfortunate fact of life for some people. Once the diagnosis is made, it’s important to avoid this common food preservative to reduce the risk of potentially serious sulfite sensitivity reactions.