Sulfites: A Sensitive Issue
According to Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates, about 1 person out of every 100 has allergic symptoms after exposure to sulfites, chemical additives widely used in the food industry. Asthma adds to the risk; sulfites cause serious symptoms in about 5% of people with asthma.
What Are Sulfites?
Sulfites are added to prolong the shelf life of many fruits, vegetables, and shellfish; to halt the growth of bacteria in wines; and to whiten food starches and condition dough. They are also used as preservatives in some medications. Although once freely allowed under the FDA category of “generally regarded as safe” (GRAS), sulfite use has been more closely regulated in the past couple of decades after being linked to numerous health problems, including allergic symptoms ranging in severity from hives and difficulty breathing to fatal anaphylactic shock. While sulfites are indeed harmless to the great majority, they can cause potentially life-threatening reactions in some people with asthma and others who are sensitive to the compounds. Scientists haven’t yet determined the smallest amount needed to trigger a reaction. Current methods cannot detect sulfite concentrations below 10 parts per million (ppm) in food, although many experts believe that a sulfite-sensitive person may experience symptoms at even lower concentrations.
To reduce the risk, the FDA has imposed the following restrictions:
- Sulfites may not be used on fruits and vegetables intended to be eaten raw, such as in supermarket produce departments or restaurant salad bars.
- Product labels must list sulfites in concentrations of 10 ppm or higher, or any sulfites that have been used in processing, regardless of the concentration. In addition, labels must specify the purpose for which sulfites were used.
If you suspect that exposure to sulfites has triggered hives, chest tightness, difficulty breathing, or other symptoms in your child, call your pediatrician to determine whether a sensitivity is present.
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The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.