Sulfur and Sulfites
Adapted from Pure Facts Dec/Jan 1996,Vol.19, No.10


Sulfur is an essential and abundant element, found in every cell of animals and plants. Most people, though not all, are able to process it. But when sulfur is used to create sulfites, many experience adverse reactions.

Several years ago a consumer advocacy organization alerted the public to the potential hazard from salad bars where the food had been treated with sulfiting agents. The most vulnerable people appeared to be asthmatics, and it was a shock for many to learn that some of the medicines being prescribed for asthmatics were actually preserved with sulfites.

As a result of the negative publicity, restaurant owners and supermarket managers discontinued the practice of treating the foods generally found in salad bars with this preservative, but sulfites are still used in other foods. Those most likely to contain sulfur-based preservatives include grapes, wine, potatoes, and dried fruits. Sulfur-containing drugs are also a common source of exposure.

Uses of Sulfur-Based Preservatives

These chemicals serve various purposes. The nonprofit Health Awareness Resource Center describes the uses of sulfur-based preservatives: In 'fresh' food products sulfites prevent discoloration and oxidation (or breakdown) of the food; on grapes they are used as a fungicide; in wines they kill certain unwanted bacteria and assist in the aging process; in drugs they act as a preservative and a stabilizer; in packaged, processed food, they are a preservative. Other uses include: as a bleaching agent for food starches, as a component in the manufacturing of cellophane, and as a strengthener in dough conditioners.


The Food and Drug administration believes that 19 deaths have been the result of a reaction to sulfites, and while the agency requires labeling if the food contains more than 10 parts per million of the preservative, and has encouraged manufacturers to use safer alternatives, they have not taken action to remove or restrict sulfites.

Autism and Sulfur

The July/August 1995 Pure Facts described a workshop given at our annual conference by Brenda O'Reilly, who leads the Autism Intolerance Allergy support group in Great Britain. Brenda explained that the children in the AIA network lack the ability to get rid of excess sulfur.  Normally, the body adds oxygen to sulfur, turning it into sulfate, which is then excreted.

For the child or adult who lacks the needed enzymes, it is necessary to avoid sulfur-containing foods, as well as the additives and medicines made from sulfur.  Foods which are high in sulfur include: cabbage, onion, garlic and egg yolk.
More information on autism

Other Problems and Sulfur

The Feingold Association (FAUS) has received reports from some members that sulfur-based additives have been found to trigger various reactions in adults and children. These include life-threatening respiratory distress, hives, sleep apnea, and behavioral reactions, including temper tantrums. Some asthmatics are very sensitive to the sulfur-based preservatives.
Mre information on asthma

FAUS Product Research

The FAUS (Feingold Association of the U.S.) Product Information Committee now asks food manufacturers to note if sulfite preservatives are used in the foods we research.  This information will be noted on Foodlists, using the symbol "SF." The sulfite additives will be treated the same way as corn syrup, nitrites, etc.;  they will not be eliminated on the Feingold Program, but they will be noted to assist those members who prefer to avoid them.

The Many Names of Sulfites

If you want to avoid sulfur-based preservatives, these are the names to watch for:

  • Sulfur Dioxide
  • Sodium Sulfite
  • Sodium Bisulfite
  • Sodium Metabisulfite
  • Potassium Bisulfite
  • Potassium Metabisulfite