Sulfites—The Next Big Thing in Allergy?

Can you be allergic to wine? 

Unfortunately, it’s possible. 

Several people recently asked us whether we plan to detect for sulfites—a common ingredient in wine. This caught us by surprise—is there such thing as a sulfite allergy? 

There is, and today we’re bringing you the skinny on all things sulfites. 

What exactly are sulfites?

Sulfites are chemicals in foods that form naturally in some, and are added as a preservative to others to extend a food’s shelf life. They prevent fungal and bacteria growth. Unsurprisingly, most foods with added sulfites are processed and packaged.

Sulfites are also a product of the fermentation process in wine and beer. Fun fact: sulfites prevent fruits from browning and wine from turning into vinegar! 

How common is a sulfite allergy or sensitivity?

According to the FDA, 1 in 100 people are sensitive to sulfites. A true sulfite allergy, however, is rare—most only have a sensitivity.

According to Dr. Jordan Scott, one of our allergist advisors and expert go-tos on all things allergy, sulfite sensitivities appear to be on the rise. “I’m now treating approximately three patients a month for sensitivities to sulfite, which is definitely an uptick from years past.”

“The toughest part about diagnosing a sulfite allergy is that there’s no test we can use, rather it’s a diagnosis by history of exposures and often excluding other food allergies,” says Dr. Scott.

How is it usually called out on a food label? 

As most folks with food allergies and intolerances know, not all labels are created equal (or even similar 😞). The FDA requires that any food containing more than 10 parts-per-million (PPM) of sulfites must state “contains sulfites.” Less than 10 PPM of sulfites have not been shown to cause symptoms, even in those who are allergic. There are also upper limit restrictions to the amount of sulfites wine may contain—in the EU it’s 210 PPM and in the US it’s 350 PPM.

Notably, while organic and bio-dynamic wines cannot contain any added sulfites, all wines contain sulfites to some degree.

When you’re reading the label, be on the lookout for one of these common names for sulfites:

–      Sulfur dioxide

–      Potassium sulfite, potassium metabisulfite, or potassium hydrogen sulfite  

–      Sodium bisulfite, sodium metabisulfite, or sodium sulfite 

–      Sulfite ammonia caramel

–      Caustic sulfite caramel 

–      Calcium sulfite, calcium hydrogen sulfite 

What if I only drink red?

You’re still consuming sulfites, just less of them. 

Reds typically contains lower sulfite levels because of their higher tannin concentrations. Tannins are polyphenols from the stems, skin, and seeds of grapes, and are naturally-occurring preservatives, which reduces the need for adding sulfites. 

What are some food products known to contain sulfites? 

–      Beer and wine

–      Baked goods

–      Jams

–      Canned veggies

–      Pickled foods

–      Soup mixes

–      Dried fruit

–      Potato chips

–      Gravy

–      Trail mix

–      Sparkling grape juice

–      Veggie juices

–      Apple cider

–      Tea

–      Bottled lemon and lime juices

–      Condiments

–      Fresh or frozen shrimp

–      Molasses

–      Guacamole 

–      Maraschino cherries 

–      Dehydrated, pre-cut, or peeled potatoes 

Is there a tie between asthma and sulfite sensitivity?

2012 study shows there is. The study found that, although there is some uncertainty as to the true prevalence of sulfite sensitivity among asthmatics, it’s estimated to stand between 3-10%.

Do you have a sulfite allergy or sensitivity? If you do, please share your experience. Education leads to awareness!

–  Meg and the Allergy Amulet Team 

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