Some of us remember the ‘salad bar’ syndrome of the 1980’s caused by sulfite sprays used on vegetables to keep them ‘fresh’ longer. All of a sudden the throat and bronchial tubes of some patrons were swelling, and their heads were throbbing, but nobody know why. Now the FDA requires manufacturers to list sulfites and other compounds known as nitrates on labels. But these compounds can still show up unexpectedly in food. Today sulfites and nitrates are used as food preservatives to eliminate bacterial contamination. Manufacturers justify their use of these compounds by saying they are found naturally in plants. However, natural plants are synergistic and contain balancing components, such as vitamin C.
The FDA estimates that one out of 100 people is sensitive to sulfite compounds. Exposure to sulfites and nitrates creates an inflammatory response that then causes an allergic reaction. They produce symptoms within minutes of ingestion in people with chemical sensitivities. Symptoms range from mildly discomforting to fatal.
Symptoms of food preservative sensitivity
- Headaches — occur after the consumption of foods that contain nitrates or sulfites
- Hives — outbreaks of red or pale bumps or welts on the skin which appear suddenly after consuming nitrates and may show up anywhere on the body. These range in size from a pencil eraser to a dinner plate, and subside in a few hours to a day.
- Rhinitis — an inflammation or irritation of the nasal passages, sneezing, itching and a runny nose, or a feeling of blockage or congestion.
- Asthma–inflammation of the lungs or breathing passages due to an allergy. If you experience congestion in the chest with difficult breathing, this points to a sulfite or nitrate allergy.
Sulfite preservatives are counted among the top nine food allergens.
Sulfites can be found in a variety of cooked and processed foods. They also occur naturally in the process of making wine and beer. Sulfites are known to initiate migraine headaches.
Sulfites are used to prevent or reduce discoloration of processed fruits and vegetables, prevent black spots on shrimp and lobster, inhibit the growth of microorganisms in fermented foods such as wine, condition dough, and maintain the stability and potency of certain medications.
Read labels and avoid foods that are likely to contain sulfites. These can include wine, baked goods, soup mixes, jams, canned vegetables, pickled foods, gravies, dried fruit, potato chips, trail mix, beer, wine, vegetable juices, bottled lemon juice, bottled lime juice, tea, condiments, molasses, fresh or frozen shrimp, guacamole, maraschino cherries, and dehydrated, pre-cut, or peeled potatoes.
U.S. labeling regulations require products to list the presence of sulfites in foods only when they are specifically added as a preservative. In food processing, added preservatives are only required to be listed when there are more than 10 parts per million (ppm) in the finished product. Sulfities may be in processed foods and not listed in the label. Choose minimally processed or frozen foods.
Most beers no longer contain sulfites, although some alcoholic ciders contain them. Although shrimp are sometimes treated with sulfites on fishing vessels, the chemical may not appear on the label.
Nitrate preservatives are used in food processing.
This type of preservative is used to prevent botulism, enhance flavor and to preserve and colorize foods. Nitrates are found in cured and processed meats such as hot dogs, bologna, sausage and bacon.
However, the best way to avoid allergic reactions is to eliminate processed foods from the diet.
According to the Food Tolerance Network, nitrate additives are associated with a range of symptoms including headaches, irritable bowel symptoms, itchy rashes, asthma, children’s behavior problems, difficulty falling asleep and waking frequently at night.
The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) issued a warning and suggestion to parents to limit children’s intake of preservatives to 70 grams of processed meat per week. Nitrates levels are increasing in our food supply due to overuse of artificial fertilizers. Nitrates are not carcinogenic in and of themselves, but can be converted to nitrites in the gut and saliva.
Nitrites readily combine with naturally occurring food amines to form highly carcinogenic chemicals called nitrosamines. Processed meats that contain nitrate and nitrite additives are naturally very high in amines, which are formed by protein breakdown in foods such as processed meat, fish and aged cheese.
A recent study published by researchers at Rhode Island Hospital in the US reported a link between higher levels of nitrates and increased deaths from certain diseases including Alzheimer’s, diabetes mellitus and Parkinson’s. “We have become a ‘nitrosamine generation”, said lead researcher Professor Suzanne de la Monte. “In essence, we have moved to a diet that is rich in amines and nitrates, which lead to increased nitrosamine production.”
Bottom line on food preservatives and allergies
If you have a sulfite or nitrate allergy, be sure to read the ingredient label on processed foods. When taking a new medication, pay attention for symptoms of allergic reaction.
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