There are a number of different preservatives that are regularly added to food to increase the shelf-life, prevent browning and spoiling. Here’s what you need to know about preservatives like sulfites in food.
Why preservatives are used?
The modern food industry owes a lot to the development of preservatives. They are used in practically every type of packaged foods. There are a number of natural, organic preservatives, including:
- Acids: (vinegar, vitamin C, citric acid)
- Hops (the primary reason it is added to beer)
- Smoke (think of cured meats)
However, there are also a number of chemical compounds that are added to food. The focus in this article is on sulfites, however, the information will also pertain to all chemical preservatives.
Here are the primary reasons why preservatives are added to food:
- To prevent spoiling by mold, bacteria or yeasts.
- Keep the flavour fresher for longer.
- Prevent oils from going rancid.
- Stop browning.
- Help maintain the texture.
Why should you care about sulfites in food?
There are so many different kinds of preservatives. However, sulfites are a very common because they acta as an antimicrobial (prevents mold, bacteria and yeast growth) as well as an antioxidant (prevents browning.)
Here are the main reasons why should care about sulfites and other preservatives in processed food:
- Health effects: All preservatives are approved for human consumption, and they are generally used in very small amounts. However, there is some evidence of negative health effects from chemical preservatives. Besides, processed foods are not as healthy as wholefoods, so it’s best to view processed foods as a treat rather than a staple.
- Allergies: Sulfite allergies are fairly common. And sulfite allergies in my household are why I know so much about sulfites! The symptoms can include eczema, digestive issues or asthma-like breathing problems. (Estimates are that about 10% of people with asthma actually have a sulfite allergy. That rate goes up to 20% in steroid-dependent asthmatics.)
- Fermentation: Sulfites are added to food to prevent bacteria and yeast from growing. So if you’re interested in making fermented foods, it’s important to avoid sulfites!
How to know if there are sulfites or other preservatives in processed food?
I learned all about sulfites when my son was diagnosed with a sulfite allergy. The allergist sent me home with a list of foods that we had to avoid and a short list of processed foods that we could eat. Her list even included where we could buy them, it was that short!
Here’s the tricky thing about sulfites:
- They are naturally found in a number of foods.
- Neither the USDA nor the Canadian Food Inspection agency (and most other countries) require labeling of sulfites when it’s added in small amounts (<10 ppm.)
- So the only way to know that there aren’t added sulfites in processed foods is to look for No Preservatives or Preservative Free on the label. Something labeled as Natural or Made with Organic Ingredients is not necessarily sulfite free.
Here’s a list of common sulfite high foods:
- Anything in the bulk section that isn’t labelled preservative free.
- Potato products, like potato chips, instant potatoes or potato starch.
- Packaged breads and baked goods.
- “Freshly baked” items from a grocery store or restaurant chain. They are usually mixed in a central location, then kept fresh with added sulfites until they are “fresh baked”.
- French fries from any restaurant that doesn’t slice their own fries daily.
For anyone with a sulfite allergy, here is a list of some foods that naturally contain sulfites:
- Grapes (which is why even no added sulfite wines still contain sulfites)
- Iceberg lettuce
- There’s a lot more… but it varies depending on individual sensitivity. If you think you have an allergy, I recommend talking with your doctor.