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Dallas, Texas, United States

Sunday, May 26, 2024

Sulfite Sensitivity

I want to warn everyone about sulfite sensitivity.  It is an allergy-like reaction to sulfites, also spelled sulphites, which are found in many foods and drinks.  Sulfite sensitivity affects about one percent of the population and is more prevalent in those with asthma.

In my twenties, I quickly learned that I did not do well with drinking beer but I tended to be just fine with mixed drinks.  As I got older, I started having unusually strong reactions to drinking red wine and hard cider.  I was also showing symptoms after eating certain foods such as shrimp but not consistently.

In my forties, I finally figured out that the problem was caused by sulfites.  Sulfites are sometimes used to preserve the coloring in foods.  It is also part of the process of creating beer, hard cider, and wine.

Margaritas are generally safe for me since sulfites are not present in distilled drinks such as tequila.  Once, however, I ordered a margarita at a restaurant and I started suffering the symptoms almost immediately.  I later learned that the restaurant had substituted the tequila in my margarita with tequila-flavored wine because of a legal restriction on serving hard liquor in that county.

Now whenever I start to get a particular type of headache, I know to retrieve the food packaging for whatever I had just eaten.  Oftentimes I will find the warning "Contains sulfites" in bold print just below the list of ingredients.  Sometimes, however, I will have to scan the ingredients to find the sulfites included using one of many different terms:

  • Calcium bisulfite
  • Calcium sulfite
  • Potassium bisulfite
  • Potassium metabisulfite
  • Potassium sulfite
  • Sodium bisulfite
  • Sodium metabisulfite
  • Sodium sulfite
  • Sulfiting agents 
  • Sulfur dioxide

I have learned to check the ingredients before I buy a new food or drink.  Recently I have been disappointed to find sulfites in bottled lemon juice, canned fava beans, onion powder, and sushi.  Fortunately, I am able to find brands of frozen shrimp that do not contain sulfites.

It seems odd to me that food and drink distributors knowingly add a preservative which effectively acts as a poison against one percent of their customers.  I guess they assume that most of those with sulfite sensitivity both know that they have it and know to avoid consuming their products.  Obviously, I wish I had learned about my sulfite sensitivity decades earlier.