What sulfites are and why they are added to foods

Sulfites

Sulfites can be added to some meat preparations, but not to fresh meat.

Sulphites are sulphur derivatives that are used as additives for their preservative, antifungal, antimicrobial and antioxidant properties.

What sulfites
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The controversy that has arisen over their health effects has led to their demonization. Good proof of this is that some food brands claim on the packaging of their products that they are free of these substances.

The dietitians-nutritionists with whom CuídatePlus has contacted clarify the confusions that have emerged in the heat of the debate.

The first thing they point out is that they’re not new. “Some of the properties of sulphites are known and have been used since ancient Greece,” says Raquel Ares, of the Board of Directors of the Official College of Dieticians-Nutritionists of the Basque Country (Codine-Edineo), member of the General Council of Official Colleges of Dieticians-Nutritionists (Cgcodn).

The eight chemical forms of these additives authorised in the European Union are labelled with their names (sulphur dioxide, sodium sulphite, etc.), followed by the numbers E220 to E228.

Natural or added?

Another important clarification is that sulphites can be found naturally in foods that have undergone some type of fermentation, such as wine, beer or bread.

Daniel Ursúa, dietitian-nutritionist and author of the Nutrihabits blog, adds that in these cases “the concentration is very low; in fact, in products such as wine they are added as an additive with the aim of preserving their aroma and flavour”.

The main food and beverage groups to which they are intentionally added are the following:

  • Wines, musts and ciders (prevent the growth of bacteria, moulds and yeasts).
  • Crustaceans (prevent darkening, which causes rejection in the consumer).
  • Dried fruits (maintain color); prepared meat products (minced meat, fresh sausages and others, to preserve them and maintain the pink and fresh color).
  • Other products (dehydrated potato purees, raw potatoes already cut for frying or boiling, some sauces…).

Health Risks

When it comes to the safety of sulfites, nutritionists are blunt. “By definition, any food additive must meet the requirements of being effective, safe and necessary,” says Sheila Bustillo, also of the Codine-Edineo Board of Directors.

“The quantities of additives that are added in the industry are totally controlled and the maximum quantity allowed is well below the amount that could present a problem,” Ursúa points out.

However, it has been observed that quite a few people may suffer from allergy or intolerance to this type of additive, which manifests itself in digestive problems, respiratory difficulties or skin reactions.

“These people should limit or avoid food with this additive. Therefore, all foods with a quantity of more than 10 mg/Kg of sulphites must indicate this on the label,” the expert says.

Also, some people with asthma may experience an increase in their symptoms, but sulfites have no effect “on the fetus in the case of pregnant women, nor do they cause cancer.

Loss of nutrients

One of the reasons that sulphites cannot be used in any product is their ability to break down thiamine or vitamin B1 into its components, thiazole and pyrimidine.

“This vitamin is indispensable for our organism,” remembers Ares. “For this reason, the use of sulphites must remain restricted to the minimum technologically necessary level, especially in foods rich in vitamin B1 such as meat.

However, in other foods the presence of sulfites is beneficial for maintaining nutritional quality. For example, in juices, as they protect vitamin C.

According to Ursúa, “we must understand that if we want long-lasting products, it is necessary to use this type of additive”.

An allergen that must be notified by law

About 3 percent of adults and 6 percent of children suffer from some form of food intolerance.

There are many food allergens that can cause symptoms but, according to European legislation (Regulation 1169-2011), only 14 are required to be reported on the label.

These include sulphites, which must be declared with the terms sulphites or sulphur dioxide in foods containing them in amounts greater than 10 mg/kg or 10 mg/L.

The terms sulphites must be declared with the terms sulphites or sulphur dioxide in foods containing them in amounts greater than 10 mg/kg or 10 mg/l.

Spanish law also requires restaurants and other establishments to report the presence of these 14 allergens.

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