Sulfite Sensitivity

Sulfites are commonly used in the processing and storage of several foods and drinks. They were finally banned for use on produce in 1986. At that time the FDA also required other beverages containing sulfites, such as wine, beer and dried fruit to have warning labels.

Sulfites are sulfur-based preservatives that are used to prevent or reduce discoloration of light-colored fruits and vegetables, prevent black spots on shrimp and lobster, inhibit the growth of microorganisms in fermented foods such as wine, condition dough, and maintain the stability and potency of certain medications. Sulfites can also be used to bleach food starches, to prevent rust and scale in boiler water that is used to steam food and even in the production of cellophane for food packaging.

It appears that sulfite sensitivity may be caused by a relative deficiency of the enzyme sulfite oxidase which breaks down sulfites and requires molybdenum as a cofactor. As with lactase deficiency, this is a metabolic problem and not an allergic one. The other proposed mechanisms are a cholinergic reflex response to inhaled sulfur dioxide and IgE mediated delayed hypersensitivity. Yet, no antibody or specific complement activity has been identified in association with sulfite exposure. However, asthmatics seem to be more prone to develop bronchospasm when challenged with sulfur dioxide.

Asthma, nasal and sinus congestion, rhinitis, postnasal drip, frontal headache and bronchospasm can be triggered by sulfites. Sulfites can be measured in the urine, and used as a means of monitoring symptom correlation with treatments such as molybdenum. The FDA estimates that 1% of people are sulfite-sensitive and 5% of those also suffer from asthma. A person can develop sulfite sensitivity at any point in life.

Products That Contain Sulfites

Sulfites can occur naturally in foods or are added to enhance food products. Sulfites are made naturally during the fermentation of wine. There is a variety of foods that contain sulfites including baked goods, soup mixes, jams, canned and dehydrated vegetables, pickled foods like sauerkraut and pickles, gravies, dried fruit, potato chips, trail mix, beer, wine, vegetable juices, bottled lemon juice, bottled lime juice, tea, condiments, molasses, fresh or frozen shrimp, guacamole (avocados), maraschino cherries, and dehydrated, pre-cut, or peeled potatoes. The list also includes lettuce, mushrooms, grapes, relishes, shredded coconut, peppers, onions, grape juice and gravies.

There are six names used for sulfites: sulfur dioxide, sodium sulfite, sodium bisulfite, potassium bisulfite, sodium metabisulfite, and potassium metabisulfite. Sulfites, bisulfites and metabisulfites are all dry chemical forms of the gas, sulfur dioxide.

Additional information can be found at this site.


Signs, symptoms & indicators of Sulfite Sensitivity

Symptoms - Allergy  

Sulfite sensitivity

Counter Indicators
Symptoms - Allergy  

Not having sulfite sensitivity

Symptoms - Food - Beverages  

Sickness caused by wine

Conditions that suggest Sulfite Sensitivity



Some asthmatics learn the hard way that drinking alcohol can trigger the wheezing, coughing symptoms of an asthma attack. Chemicals, such as sulfite preservatives in wine, may be the cause of these attacks. Wines are clearly the major offenders among alcoholic drinks, with red wine being the worst. Sulphites appear to affect mainly asthmatics, and children more than adults. Approximately 10% of American adult asthmatics are sensitive to sulphites.

Risk factors for Sulfite Sensitivity


Recommendations for Sulfite Sensitivity


Lab Tests/Rule-Outs  

Test Copper Levels

Serum copper should be checked because high levels can drive molybdenum levels down.



Molybdenum may be warranted for use in asthma or other symptoms associated with sulfite sensitivity because of its involvement with sulfur. Molybdenum deficiency may be responsible for sulfite sensitivity since it is a cofactor for sulfite oxidase. Sulfite oxidase catalyzes the last step (sulfites to sulfates) in the breakdown of sulfur amino acids. It may be wise to balance molybdenum supplementation with copper supplements, since one can cause a deficiency of the other.

Sulfites in the urine are indicative of molybdenum need. Urine sulfite dipsticks are available from Meridian Valley Laboratory.

Molybdenum by IV administration stimulates sulfite metabolism but it is not very effective orally; oral use should therefore be with the most effective chelates available, such as molybdenum picolinate at 1-3mg per day.


Vitamin B12 (Cobalamine)

Supplementation with B12 may reduce sulfite sensitivity. In one study the oxidative action of vitamin B12 was able to block a sulfite-induced bronchospasm in 4 out of 5 asthmatic children. In another study, the following conditions responded to B12 use: Intractable asthma – 18 out of 20 patients improved; Chronic urticaria – 9/10 improved; Chronic contact dermatitis – 6/6 improved; Atopic dermatitis – 1/10 greatly improved and 5/10 moderately improved with 1000mcg IM once weekly for 4 weeks. [J Allergy 2: 183- 5, 1951]

Blood levels of B12 indicate that sublingual B12 becomes available as early as 15 minutes after administration and is still elevated at 24 hours, suggesting that a once-daily dose of 2000-4000mcg would be an effective prophylactic measure. [Bhat N.K. – Presentation at the 43rd Annual Meeting, American Academy of Allergy and Immunology, 1987]


Strong or generally accepted link
Proven definite or direct link
Very strongly or absolutely counter-indicative
Likely to help
Highly recommended



The (American) Food and Drug Administration. It is the official government agency that is responsible for ensuring that what we put into our bodies - particularly food and drugs - is safe and effective.

Sulfite Sensitivity

A person can develop sulfite sensitivity (allergy) at any point in their life but the cause is often unknown. Sulfites are sulfur-based compounds that are added by food manufacturers and restaurants for many purposes such as reducing discoloration of light-colored fruits and vegetables; preventing black spots on seafood; inhibiting the growth of microorganisms in fermented foods such as wine; conditioning dough; maintaining the stability and potency of certain medications. The most common symptom is difficulty in breathing. Sulfites give off the gas sulfur dioxide, which can cause irritation in the lungs and cause a severe asthma attack for those who suffer from asthma. Responses vary; sulfites can also cause chest tightness, nausea, hives, or even anaphylactic shock.


Specific protein catalysts produced by the cells that are crucial in chemical reactions and in building up or synthesizing most compounds in the body. Each enzyme performs a specific function without itself being consumed. For example, the digestive enzyme amylase acts on carbohydrates in foods to break them down.


An essential trace element. It helps regulate iron stores in the body and is a key component of at least three enzymes: xanthine oxidase, aldehyde oxidase and sulfite oxidase. These enzymes are involved with carbohydrate metabolism, fat oxidation and urine metabolism. The average adult has about 9mg of molybdenum concentrated mostly in the liver, kidney, adrenal glands, bones and skin. Molybdenum deficiencies are associated with esophageal cancer, sexual impotency and tooth decay.


A substance that acts with another substance to bring about certain effects, often a coenzyme.


An enzyme that aids the body in converting lactose to glucose and galactose. It is also necessary for digestion of milk and milk products.


The chemical processes of living cells in which energy is produced in order to replace and repair tissues and maintain a healthy body. Responsible for the production of energy, biosynthesis of important substances, and degradation of various compounds.


A type of serum protein (globulin) synthesized by white blood cells of the lymphoid type in response to an antigenic (foreign substance) stimulus. Antibodies are complex substances formed to neutralize or destroy these antigens in the blood. Antibody activity normally fights infection but can be damaging in allergies and a group of diseases that are called autoimmune diseases.


Sudden involuntary contraction of the smooth muscles surrounding the bronchial tubes.


A lung disorder marked by attacks of breathing difficulty, wheezing, coughing, and thick mucus coming from the lungs. The episodes may be triggered by breathing foreign substances (allergens) or pollutants, infection, vigorous exercise, or emotional stress.


Inflammation of the nasal mucous membrane.


An essential mineral that our bodies regulate and conserve. Excess sodium retention increases the fluid volume (edema) and low sodium leads to less fluid and relative dehydration. The adult body averages a total content of over 100 grams of sodium, of which a surprising one-third is in bone. A small amount of sodium does get into cell interiors, but this represents only about ten percent of the body content. The remaining 57 percent or so of the body sodium content is in the fluid immediately surrounding the cells, where it is the major cation (positive ion). The role of sodium in the extracellular fluid is maintaining osmotic equilibrium (the proper difference in ions dissolved in the fluids inside and outside the cell) and extracellular fluid volume. Sodium is also involved in nerve impulse transmission, muscle tone and nutrient transport. All of these functions are interrelated with potassium.


A mineral that serves as an electrolyte and is involved in the balance of fluid within the body. Our bodies contain more than twice as much potassium as sodium (typically 9oz versus 4oz). About 98% of total body potassium is inside our cells. Potassium is the principal cation (positive ion) of the fluid within cells and is important in controlling the activity of the heart, muscles, nervous system and just about every cell in the body. Potassium regulates the water balance and acid-base balance in the blood and tissues. Evidence is showing that potassium is also involved in bone calcification. Potassium is a cofactor in many reactions, especially those involving energy production and muscle building.

Comments 1

  1. Wow! that was very informative. I learned a lot from reading this article. I am allergy to sulfur; now, I better understand why I have a hard time with foods and drinks that contains sulfites. I would not have linked sulfur and sulfites together had I not read this article. furthermore, I am surprised that the article did not include swollen lips, or tightening in the throat, or breaking out of bumps or hives as symptoms of sulfur and sulfite affects; because these reactions become visible various combinations when I have a sulfurs or sulfite reaction. In addition, Is there any research data that links any of this kinds of side effects to Sulfur or sulfite: such as becoming very drowsy to the point sleepiness, temporary loss of memory, temporary physical neurological dysfunction such as physical motor control of legs, arm, hands, or feet, as well as some form speech impairment? I guess, the question is; Can sulfur and sulfites play havoc on the functioning of our physical neural logical functioning?

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