Sulfite Facts

"The Chemicals That We Eat"

(From a speech given by Karleen Page in 1988)

Vicki Peterson in The Natural Foods Catalog states that the average American eats 4 pounds of food additives a year. That is equivalent to 20-30 aspirin-sized tablets of chemicals per day.

There have been at least 17 people who have died from ingesting sulfite, according to Chris Lecos in FDA Consumer, March 1988. One of them was a 12-year-old girl who did not know she had an allergy to sulfites. She ate some guacamole dip, immediately lost consciousness and then died.

Sulfites are listed on food labels by the following names:

  • sulfur dioxide
  • sodium sulfite
  • sodium and potassium bisulfite
  • sodium and potassium metabisulfite
  • "sulfiting agent"
  • "contains sulfites"

The presence of sulfites in food items are measured in parts per million (ppm). That's 1 part sulfite to 100,000 parts of food--the equivalent of a drop of water in a bathtub. I have reacted to as low as 10 ppm. Lecos reported an asthmatic who died from eating cottage fries in a restaurant, tested at 96 ppm of sulfite. Another asthmatic died from eating hash browns tested at 242 ppm. Another reported case of sulfite allergy was a person who did not die but was in a coma for 3 weeks and sustained severe motor and neurological damage - the food tested at 1390 ppm.

For an example of sulfite levels in food, consider this chart:

Average Sulfite Levels in Potato Products

Frozen 15 to 250 ppm
Dehydrated 50 to 700 ppm
Refrigerated 30 to 1400 ppm

The use of sulfites has been considered safe by the FDA since 1958 when they were put on the GRAS list (Generally Recognized As Safe). In 1958, Congress enacted the Food Additives Amendment to the Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act to ensure the safety of additives. The GRAS list "grandfathered in" many common additives that have NEVER been tested. These include over 650 substances whose use is based on "logic and common sense".

In 1960, the Color Additive Amendment was added to make sure colorings are safe for food use. The Delaney Clause states that if an additive causes cancer in humans or animals, it cannot be added to food, for example, cyclamates. However, food additive testing may be done by or for the company that wants to sell or use the additive.

In 1986 the FDA banned sulfites on fresh fruits, or vegetables EXCEPT for potatoes. However restaurants sometimes ILLEGALLY use a "potato wash" to keep foods fresh, which contains, you guessed it, sulfites.

In 1987 the FDA ordered manufacturers to list sulfites on food labels if the product contains more than 10 ppm of sulfites, and required that drugs containing sulfites contain a warning label. There is no known "safe level" for individuals, however.

From 1982 to 1988, the FDA has received more than 1,400 complaints about sulfites. In 1985, the FDA formed the Adverse Reaction Monitoring System to investigate these complains. The chart below shows the dispersion of complaints received:

Adverse Reaction Monitoring System Complaints 1982-1988


Aspartame (mainly headaches from drinking soft drinks)




Other, including MSG, emulsifier polysorbate, nitrate preservatives, some dyes and vitamin supplements

This chart shows the breakdown of sulfite complaints:

Adverse Reaction Monitoring System Sulfite Complaints 1982-1988


Salad bar, fresh fruit and vegetables


Potato Products





Estimates of the number of sulfite allergic or sensitive individuals vary. Chris Lecos in the FDA Consumer, March, 1988 states that an estimated 1 million people are sulfite sensitive, primarily asthma sufferers. Other estimates say 1 in 100 people are sulfite sensitive, which would make it on the order of 2.5 million. Judy Folkenberg (FDA Consumer 10-88) states that 10% of the population is allergic to sulfites. 50% of sulfite reactions are considered serious, causing difficulty breathing or seizures. According to her article, "Reporting Reactions to Additives", as many as 27 individuals may have died from sulfite reactions.

Why do manufacturers put sulfites in food? They will give you all kinds of reasons, but the bottom line is that it makes food last longer and thus increases profits. Basically, it is an antioxidant, which means it keeps food from turning brown. Therefore you should be suspicious of any food that should normally turn brown when exposed to air, but doesn't: including apples, apple products, potatoes (raw, chips, processed, frozen, dried, etc), coconut, marshmallows, wines, beer, white grape juice - the list goes on.

In the article, "A Primer on Food Additives" in the October, 1988 issue of FDA Consumer, it states that "the food additive industry generates approximately $10 billion a year in business according to Dr. Richard Hall, a former vice president of McCormick Spices." Most processed foods have an average of 40 flavorings added to them. And many of them are still not listed on labels.

Supposedly it is illegal to put sulfites on anything but potatoes without labeling it on the product. In 1986, the FDA ordered that they not be added to any fresh fruits or vegetables, except for potatoes. In 1987, the FDA ordered manufacturers to list the presence of sulfites on labeling. They are proposing to ban it on potato products. But sulfites in small amounts are undetectable by our senses, so how can you tell if a product is contaminated or not?

According to Vicki Peterson in The Natural Foods Catalog, common symptoms associated with food and additive allergies are:

  1. Persistent fatigue, not helped by rest.
  2. Over or under weight, or history of fluctuation.
  3. Occasional puffiness of face, hands, abdomen, or ankles.
  4. Heart palpitations, especially after eating.
  5. Excessive sweating not related to exercise.

Of course there are other preservatives besides sulfites that are harmful (and to which I am allergic). I was diagnosed with MCS in about 1990 - which stands for Multiple Chemical Sensitivity. The syndrome is also called EI for Environmental Illness. In addition to sulfites, yellow dye, and other food additives and preservatives, I react to herbicides, fungicides, pesticides, some perfumes, cigarette smoke, formaldehyde, and other "modern" environmental toxins. Makes life fun in our current toxic environment.

Isn't chemistry a wonderful thing? Most foods are treated with mold inhibitors, fungicides, herbicides and pesticides before food processors ever get a hold of them. Most processed foods have an average of 40 flavorings added to them. Although labeling has come a long way, there are still many things that are not disclosed to us on the packaging. Click here for a copy of a newspaper article about the subject, including a piece about yours truly.

In conclusion, Dr. MacKarness of the UK estimates that no less than 30% of all ill people have symptoms caused by food or chemical allergy. Another 30% are partly traceable to the same cause. That means that over half of the patients treated by an average doctor endure pain, disease and surgical procedures which they could avoid by simply not eating certain foods (from the Natural Foods Catalog by Vicki Peterson).


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Revised: May 06, 2001.