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Sulphite sensitivity

Sulphites are used as preservatives in some foods, and can cause allergy-like symptoms in people with asthma and allergic rhinitis.

Allergy to sulphites is rare, affecting fewer than 1 in 50 people. However, up to around one in eight people with asthma may be affected.

Sulphites preserve food using sulphur dioxide gas. Once the food starts to be digested, gas can be released up into the airways where it may cause irritation.

A person can develop sensitivity to sulphites at any time in life, and the cause of sensitivity is unknown. For a person who is sensitive to sulphites, a reaction can be mild or life threatening.

Avoiding sulphites

Although sulphites are no longer used on most fresh foods, they still can be found in a variety of cooked and processed foods. They also occur naturally in the process of making wine and beer.

Avoiding foods that contain or are likely to contain sulphites is the only way to prevent a reaction. If you are sensitive to sulphites, be sure to read the labels on all food items. When eating out, ask the chef or waiter if sulphites are used or added to food before or during preparation.

Food additives or E numbers containing sulphites can be found listed on food packaging:

  • E220     Sulphur dioxide
  • E221     Sodium sulphite
  • E222     Sodium hydrogen sulphite
  • E223     Sodium metabisulphite
  • E224     Potassium metabisulphite
  • E226     Calcium sulphite
  • E227     Calcium hydrogen sulphite
  • E228     Potassium hydrogen sulphite
  • E150b   Caustic sulphite caramel
  • E150d   Sulphite ammonia caramel

Examples of foods that may contain sulphites include:

  • Baked goods
  • Soup mixes
  • Jams
  • Canned vegetables
  • Pickled foods
  • Gravies
  • Dried fruit
  • Potato crisps
  • Beer and wine
  • Vegetable juices
  • Sparkling grape juice
  • Apple cider
  • Bottled lemon juice and lime juice
  • Tea
  • Many condiments
  • Molasses
  • Fresh or frozen prawns
  • Guacamole
  • Maraschino cherries
  • Dehydrated, pre-cut or peeled potatoes
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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on January 27, 2014

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