Sulphites are preservatives used in the production of some food and drinks. Sulphites are chemicals which have anti-microbial and antioxidant properties; they are used to help make food and drink last longer and to help protect colour and flavour.
In the UK sulphites are now considered one of the twelve potential allergens (along with peanuts, fish, shellfish, gluten and milk) that have to be labelled on a food or drink product. Warnings about the presence of sulphites are now common on products such as wine or cider.
The use of sulphites as preservatives can be dated back hundreds of years and they are widely considered safe. However, there have been a number of reports of adverse reactions to sulphites. It is thought that less than 2% of the general population has a sulphite intolerance however this figure rises to between 5-10% in asthmatics. It is uncommon in pre-school children. Steroid-dependent asthmatics are thought to be more at risk.
The type of reaction a person may experience if intolerant to sulphites varies widely. Fortunately most recorded reactions are mild and symptoms may include:
- hives (also known as Urticaria. Urticaria is a raised itchy rash that appears on the skin.)
- swelling of the mouth and lips
- wheezing or trouble breathing
- asthma attack (in people with asthma)
In very rare cases Anaphylaxis (this is a medical emergency and immediate professional medical attention is required). Symptoms of this include:
- itchy skin or a raised, red skin rash
- swelling of the eyes, lips, hands and feet
- feeling lightheaded or faint
- swelling of the mouth, throat or tongue, which can cause breathing and swallowing difficulties
- abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting
- collapse and unconsciousness
If you suspect you may suffer from a sulphite intolerance, it is advisable that you first speak with your GP. Practically you will need to avoid sulphites to minimise symptoms. The names to look out for on the label are sulphur dioxide and sodium or potassium bisulphite, sulphite or metabisulphite. There is a wide group of food and drink where sulphites are added and these include:
- pickled foods
- dried fruit (sultanas, dried apricots, prunes, raisins etc.)
- maraschino cherries
- tinned coconut milk
- beer, wine and cider
- vegetable juices
- some soft drinks
- grape juice
- bottled lemon juice and lime juice
- condiments (bottled/jar sauces; ketchup, chutney etc.)
- dehydrated, pre-cut or peeled potatoes
- fresh or frozen prawns
- some processed meat products
Sources used in writing this article are available on request
Information contained in this Articles page has been written by talkhealth based on available medical evidence. Our evidence-based articles are certified by the Information Standard and our sources are available on request. The content is not, though, written by medical professionals and should never be considered a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek medical advice before changing your treatment routine. talkhealth does not endorse any specific products, brands, or treatments.
Information written by the talkhealth team
Next review: 30 July 2022