digestive sulfites

Sulfites in our Food


In this post, we will learn the most important thing in the entire book. We will learn to identify the sources of sulfites in our diet. This is by far the main source of sulfites and the one that is the most difficult to master. We will see how sulfites arrive in our foods as additives and as processing aids. We will see which foods and ingredients are risks.

As Additives

We will start with a simplified overview.

Food additives are substances added in small amounts to food to enhance flavor, texture, appearance or conservation. They consist of a single molecule, in contrast to more complex ingredients.

They are commonly called sulfites, metabisulfite, sulfiting agents or sulphites in British English. They all have a code from E220 to E228 that was assigned by the Codex Alimentarius Commission. These codes are common to all Europe. Sometimes they have other names to which we must be alert. We will find these codes and/or the names on the list of ingredients. Let’s get acquainted with each of them:

  • E220: Sulfur dioxide (or sulfur oxide, sulphur oxide, sulphur dioxide). It is used as a preservative/antioxidant. It is notably found in dried fruits and wine.
  • E221: Sodium sulfite. It is used as a preservative/antioxidant, bleaching agent, flour treatment agent. It was used for preserving meat, including minced. It is now forbidden, but abuses are possible.
  • E222: Sodium bisulfite (sodium hydrogen sulfite). It is used as a preservative/antioxidant, bleaching agent.
  • E223: Sodium disulfite (or sodium metabisulfite). It is used as a preservative/antioxidant, bleaching agent, flour treatment agent.
  • E224: Potassium disulfite (or potassium metabisulfite). It is used as a preservative/antioxidant, bleaching agent, flour treatment agent.
  • E225: Potassium sulfite. It is not approved in Europe as a food additive. However, it is permitted in Australia and New Zealand as a whitening agent.
  • E226: Calcium sulfite. It is used as a preservative/antioxidant.
  • E227: Calcium bisulfite (or calcium acid sulfite, calcium hydrogen sulfite). It is used as a preservative/antioxidant.
  • E228: potassium bisulfite (or potassium hydrogen sulfite). It is used as an anticaking agent, preservative.
  • E539: Sodium thiosulfate (or sodium thiosulphate). It is not approved in Europe as a food additive. It is used as preservative/antioxidant, bleaching agent, flour treatment agent. Although it is not directly a sulfite in an acid medium, the thiosulfate ion, in the form of thiosulfuric acid H2S2O3 produces among other things sulfur dioxide.

As Processing Aids

Now we will get to know another category of lesser known products. They are processing aids, also called production aids or additive supports.

These are, for example, demolding or anti-foam agents, or enzymes to facilitate a chemical reaction. Sulfites are, for example, used to soak corn cobs preparatory to the manufacturing of glucose corn syrup or, alternatively, caramel food coloring.

They are not considered as ingredients or additives, because they are not supposed to be active in the final product. The union of manufacturers presents it to us as follows:

“They are used in necessary and sufficient quantities to enable, facilitate or optimize a step in the manufacture of a food. Unlike food additives, processing aids no longer have an effect in the finished product. However, there may still technically be unavoidable residues, which must not have any technological effect on the finished product and present no health risk. “

We have seen that the regulation pertaining to them is French this time, and not European like on additives. Without going into Europe’s interest, or lack thereof, I think this renders the weakest regulation and the most circumvention. When one reads the Decree No. 2011-509 of May 10, 2011, one can only be astonished by its brevity.

We must be very vigilant on this subject, because it is a source of undeclared sulfites, whether they are used in the manufacture of the food or whether they are contributed by one of the ingredients that compose it.

The Codex Alimentarius

The Codex Alimentarius is, in a way, the Bible of the international agri-food industry.

The Codex develops standards with the assistance of international organizations and independent risk assessors, or in the framework of special consultations organized by the FAO and WHO. It does not represent the laws, but it gives us a very precise understanding of current practices in the food industry.

The Codex has published a document that is of particular interest to us. This is the “Codex General Standard for Food Additives” (GSFA, Codex STAN 192-1995). This document of 244 pages lists all authorized food additives and their maximum concentrations and affected food categories. These recommendations are not binding for member states, but they incorporate existing laws, or are often used in the development of national legislation.

For us, the part of the document which deals with sulfites is sort of our big fishing net, which will enable us to identify:

  • All categories of foods that may contain sulfites and maximum doses accepted.
  • All categories of foodstuffs in which sulfites may be used at doses below 10 mg/L, and are therefore used without obligation to inform on the label according to European legislation on additives.
  • All categories of foods that may contain sulfites in other countries outside of France or Europe.

However, the Codex Alimentarius Committee has not yet set a standard for processing aids. What we find is limited to sulfites used as additives.

On page 206 (this page number may vary if the document is updated) you will find a list of sulfites, their codification from E220 to E228 and E539, as well as all foods that may contain them and in what maximum doses. We learn that foods like frozen fruit, fruit sauce, coconut milk, and dried vegetables can contain much more than mustard or wine! Beware nonetheless:

  • The foods may contain sulfites, but this is not necessarily so. Manufacturers may use other additives.
  • The dose of sulfites indicated is the maximum dose. They can contain less. Manufacturers can use more or less sulfites.
  • The dose given is maximum sulfites per kg or liter of food. The sulfite dose will therefore depend on the amount consumed. We easily eat 100 grams of frozen fries, not 100 grams of mustard.

Despite these limitations, the Codex appears to me to be the best starting point for identifying all sources of sulfite as additives.

You can browse the tables on sulfites starting from page 206, but I invite you to wait. I supplemented with extensive research on the implementation of sulfites as additives in a number of foods, but mainly as processing aids. I also calculated the average quantities of these foods we eat to identify the maximum doses of sulfites per serving they may contain. This is what we will see in the section devoted to the practice of elimination.

What type of Food have you ruled out of your diet to avoid Sulfites?

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