Sulphites are one of the oldest and most common preservatives added to food, they can be found in everything from tinned vegetables to soup mixes, fresh prawns to sausages. They occur naturally in some foods and in the body, and are used to maintain colour, prolong shelf life and to stop the growth of bugs. To preserve the food, in other words!
Most people are fine with sulphites or have such a negligible reaction that they don’t even notice. However, there are a couple of reasons I try to avoid sulphites in mine and my kids’ food.
First, sulphites are believed to destroy vitamin B1 (thiamine), and possibly folic acid as well. Foods that are rich in vitamin B1 are dairy, meats and cereals, so I’m extra vigilant when it comes to these foods.
The second reason is that kids, because of their diet, have the potential to take in a massive amount of sulphites, and while they may not have a reaction to low levels I’m not that keen to see if they have a reaction to higher levels of this preservative, especially when there are safer alternatives. Food producers don’t have to list sulphites if they are below 10mg/kilo, so there are lots of hidden sources, despite my best efforts – another reason to avoid products where they are listed.
Sulphites, which must be listed on the ingredients of packaged foods, are found in dried fruit, drinks like cordial and juice, sausages and chips… Which, when Mum’s not on her game, can occasionally describe a day’s eating in our house. Dried fruit is a shocker, with far higher permissible levels of sulphites – sausages can contain up to 500 mg/kilo, for example, but dried fruit in fruit bars up to 3000 mg/kilo.
How to avoid sulphites in food
- Read the ingredients and look out for anything with a number between 220 and 228, or a sulphuric sounding ingredient like sulphur dioxide or potassium sulphite. The allergy disclaimer should list sulphites where you find “contains milk, wheat” and so on.
- Look for those magic words “preservative free”, and if you can’t find a preservative-free version of something you like, ask yourself: is this real food?
- Buy sulphite-free dried fruit or that labelled organic. It is more expensive but, due to the high sugar content, kids shouldn’t be eating a heap of dried fruit anyway. Fresh is best.
- That said, watch out for fresh grapes as they have often been treated with sulphites.
- Out and about, things are a little harder. Sulphites are used in lots of food in restaurants and cafes. Aim for fresh food like salads where possible. Hot chips… so good, so bad… Make them an occasional treat and make your own at home (so easy, I promise).
For those with sulphite sensitivity, the reaction is just like any other food allergy (although technically its not an allergy): wheezy, blocked nose, itchiness and in severe cases, difficulty breathing and, in some cases, anaphylaxis. Asthmatics especially need to avoid sulphites as they can make symptoms worse.
To read more and see a list of foods containing sulphites, click here