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Understanding Sulfite Allergy: A Path to Safer Dietary Choices

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Updated on March 7, 2024

Sulfite allergy, often overlooked and misunderstood, presents a unique challenge in the landscape of food sensitivities and allergies. This type of allergy is not only about avoiding certain foods but also about understanding a hidden component in many of our daily consumables. From dried fruits to wine and from packaged snacks to restaurant meals, sulfites lurk in numerous unexpected places, making vigilance a necessity for those affected.

This article aims to shed light on sulfite allergies, offering an in-depth look into what sulfites are, how they can affect the body, and the challenges faced by individuals with this allergy. It will provide valuable insights into identifying sulfite-containing foods, managing symptoms, and navigating a world where sulfites are a common, yet often invisible, ingredient.

Whether you’re someone newly diagnosed with a sulfite allergy, a caregiver, or simply curious, this article seeks to equip you with the knowledge and tools needed for a safer, more informed approach to this unique dietary challenge.

Key Takeaways

  • Sulfa allergies and sulfite allergies are different. Sulfa allergies come from bad reactions to sulfa drugs, while sulfite allergies happen when someone eats or drinks something with sulfites.
  • Foods containing sulfites that people with sulfite allergies should avoid include baked goods, soup mixes, jams, canned vegetables, pickled foods, gravies, and dried fruit.
  • To manage a sulfite allergy, avoid sulfite-containing foods and drinks, read labels carefully, inform others about the allergy, and regularly consult with healthcare professionals for guidance and support.

Understanding Sulfite Allergy

A close-up image of a stack of medication bottles with a warning sign. Sulfite allergy

Sulfite allergies can cause symptoms such as rash, hives, and swelling and can be triggered by foods and beverages containing sulfites.


Sulfites are naturally occurring compounds that have been used in food preservation for centuries. Here are some of the specific reasons why sulfites are used in foods:

  • Prevent browning: Sulfites react with enzymes that cause fruits and vegetables to brown, such as apples, bananas, and potatoes. They help to maintain the fresh appearance of these foods.
  • Inhibit bacterial growth: Sulfites can inhibit the growth of bacteria and fungi, which can spoil your food. This is particularly important for foods that are prone to spoilage, such as dried fruits, jams, and jellies.
  • Maintain colour and freshness: Sulfites can help to maintain the colour and freshness of foods, such as lettuce, shrimp, and sausages. This is because they prevent the breakdown of pigments and other compounds that contribute to colour and flavour.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that sulfites be listed on food labels if they are present at levels of 10 parts per million (ppm) or higher. This allows people with sulfite sensitivity to avoid foods that may trigger a reaction.

What Causes the Allergy

The exact cause of sulfite allergy is not fully understood, but it is thought to be an immune system dysfunction. When a person with a sulfite allergy consumes or inhales sulfites, their immune system mistakenly identifies the sulfites as a threat and mounts an attack against them. This attack releases histamine and other chemicals into your blood, which can cause various symptoms.

Why some people have this reaction and others don’t isn’t fully understood, but it might be a mix of genetic and environmental factors. People with asthma, especially, are more likely to be sensitive to sulfites.

Symptoms of a Sulfite Reaction

These reactions can happen when you eat some foods or take certain drugs. Here are some signs of a sulfite reaction:

  • You might start to cough a lot.
  • It could get hard to breathe, and you’ll make a harsh sound when you do – this is wheezing.
  • You might feel a stuffy or runny nose – that’s an allergy.
  • If your tummy swells up, it’s called bloating.
  • You could go to the toilet more than usual, which means diarrhoea.
  • Vomiting is another sign – when food comes back up your throat.

In severe cases, sulfite allergy can trigger a life-threatening allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. Symptoms of anaphylaxis can include:

  • Dizziness.
  • Rapid heartbeat.
  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Rapidly swelling throat.
  • Loss of consciousness.

Identifying a Sulfite Allergy

Since there is no definitive allergy test for sulfites, a controlled food challenge is required for diagnosis. Under the supervision of a licenced allergist, you will consume small amounts of sulfites to observe if a reaction occurs. If an allergic reaction is triggered, your allergist will develop a personalised treatment plan.

Food challenges should only be conducted in a safe, medical setting. Self-diagnosing allergies is never recommended. If you suddenly develop a severe allergic reaction, your allergist will have emergency equipment readily available. Additionally, they can prescribe allergy medications to alleviate symptoms associated with sulfite sensitivity.

Managing a Sulfite Allergy


Mild reactions to sulfites typically resolve on their own. However, more severe reactions require medical attention from an allergist. For asthma symptoms, an oral steroid may be prescribed. To manage asthma symptoms throughout the day, carry your inhaler with you. Antihistamines and cortisone creams can help alleviate skin-related reactions.

While sulfite allergies rarely lead to anaphylaxis, individuals with extreme sulfite sensitivity should consult their allergist about carrying an epinephrine auto-injector. They will tell if an EpiPen is necessary for your condition. In the event that you are unable to administer the medication yourself, ensure that your friends and family are trained to do so.

Foods To Avoid for Sulfite Allergies

Some common foods that may contain sulfites include baked goods, soup mixes, jams, canned vegetables, pickled foods, gravies, and dried fruit.

Foods to Avoid if Allergic to Sulfites

A collection of sulfite-containing foods surrounded by vibrant fruits and vegetables.

Here is a more comprehensive list of foods that may contain sulfites:

  • Canned vegetables.
  • Dried fruits: Dried apricots, dried peaches, dried raisins, dried prunes.
  • Meats and poultry: Sausages, hot dogs, luncheon meats, shrimp, lobster.
  • Grains and starches: Bread, cereal, crackers, pasta, pizza dough.
  • Sweets and desserts: Jams, jellies, candy, ice cream, pies, cakes, cookies.
  • Beverages: Beer, wine, cider, fruit juices, soft drinks.
  • Condiments and sauces: Gravy, ketchup, mustard, pickle relish, soy sauce, vinegar.
  • Other: Molasses, maple syrup, potato chips.

You should also be careful when eating out at restaurants, as sulfites are often used in prepared foods. It is always best to ask about the ingredients of a dish before you order it. If you are unsure whether a food contains sulfites, you can always contact the manufacturer of the food or ask your doctor or a registered dietitian.

Sulfa Allergy vs. Sulfite Allergy


Sulfa allergies and sulfite allergies are not the same. Sulfa allergies come from bad reactions to sulfa drugs. But sulfite allergies happen when someone eats food or drinks something with sulfites in it. People often think that if they are allergic to sulfa drugs, they must be allergic to sulfites, too. This is not true. Allergies to these two things can look the same, but they’re not related at all.

Also, it’s rare for a person to have a sulfate allergy. There’s no link between being allergic to sulfates and having a reaction to sulfites or sulfa drugs either. So don’t mix up the words ‘sulfa’ and ‘sulfite’. They mean very different things.

Allergy TypeDescriptionExamples of Foods to AvoidRelevant Facts
Sulfa AllergiesSulfa allergies refer to reactions to sulfa drugs, which are not related to dietary consumption of sulfites.Dried fruits, mushrooms, condiments like ketchup and mayonnaise, frozen shrimp, and potato chips.Sulfa reactions are not linked to dietary consumption of sulfites. Therefore, there’s no need to give up foods like dried fruit if you have a sulfa allergy.
Sulfite AllergiesSulfite allergies, on the other hand, are reactions to sulfites present in many foods and beverages.Baked goods, soup mixes, jams, canned vegetables, pickled foods, gravies, dried fruit, potato chips, beer, wine, and vegetable juices.Sulfites are found in commercial foods such as gravies, sauces, fruit toppings, maraschino cherries, pickled onions, and maple syrup. Sulfite sensitivity can also be triggered by canned vegetables, pickled foods, dried fruits, and potato chips.

Please note that foods that contain sulphur, such as garlic, onions and broccoli, do not need to be avoided in either case, as sulphur is not a cause for concern when it comes to both sulfa allergies and sulfite sensitivities.

How to Avoid Sulfites

Here are some tips for avoiding sulfites:

1. Read food labels carefully. Sulfites must be listed on food labels if they are present at levels of 10 parts per million (ppm) or higher. Ingredients to watch out for if you are allergic to sulfites:

  • Sulphur dioxide: This compound is often used as a bleaching agent and preservative.
  • Potassium bisulfite or potassium metabisulfite: These compounds are used to prevent browning in fruits and vegetables.
  • Sodium bisulfite, sodium metabisulfite, or sodium sulfite: These compounds are used to prevent bacterial growth in foods.

These ingredients are often hidden in food labels under other names, such as “preservatives” or “antioxidants.” If you are unsure whether a food contains sulfites, it is always best to read the label carefully or contact the manufacturer.

2. Avoid foods that are commonly high in sulfites, such as dried fruits, processed meats, jams, jellies, fermented foods, canned fruits and vegetables, pickle relish and chutney, potato salad, shrimp cocktail sauce, and some salad dressings.

3. Talk to your doctor. They can help you identify foods containing sulfites and recommend how to manage your sulfite intake.


In conclusion, understanding and managing a sulfite allergy requires a careful balance of knowledge, vigilance, and adaptation. While navigating a world where sulfites are commonly used in various foods and drinks can be challenging, it is not insurmountable. Armed with the right information and strategies, individuals with sulfite allergies can lead safe, healthy, and enjoyable lives.

This article highlighted the importance of recognising symptoms, identifying hidden sulfite sources, and making informed dietary choices. By raising awareness and fostering a supportive community, we can ensure that those with sulfite allergies are not only well-informed but also feel less isolated in their experiences. Ultimately, awareness and education are key to demystifying sulfite allergies, empowering individuals to take control of their health and well-being in a sulfite-rich world.


1. Is sulfite allergy curable?

Sulfite allergy, like many other allergies, is generally not considered curable. The main approach for managing a sulfite allergy is avoidance of foods and products that contain sulfites. This involves careful reading of food labels, being aware of common sources of sulfites, and possibly making significant dietary adjustments.

In some cases, people with sulfite sensitivity may see an improvement in their tolerance levels over time, especially with careful management and avoidance. However, this should not be confused with a cure, as the underlying sensitivity often remains.

2. Is sulfite allergy so dangerous?

Sulfite allergy or sensitivity can vary in severity among individuals, ranging from mild to potentially dangerous reactions. For some people, sulfites may cause mild allergic reactions, such as rashes, hives, or gastrointestinal symptoms. However, for others, especially those with asthma or severe allergies, sulfites can trigger more serious reactions.

3. Is it necessary to eliminate all sulfites from my diet if I have a sulfite sensitivity?

There is no need for complete elimination unless advised by your doctor. Sulfites occur naturally at low levels in many foods but can also be added as preservatives in certain products.

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