Sulphites

Sulphites are substances that naturally occur in some foods and the human body. They are also regulated food additives used as perservatives.

Small bottles of flavored olive oil and balsamic vinegar in the kitchen
Quick Facts
  • Sulphites are used as a food additive and can also occur naturally in some foods.
  • Sulphites can cause allergic-like symptoms in some individuals.
  • Health Canada includes sulphites (a food additive) as a priority allergen. Sulphites do not cause true allergic reactions, and are generally grouped with the priority food allergens because sulphite-sensitive individuals may react to sulphites with allergy-like symptoms.

Allergic reactions to sulphites

Sulphites do not cause true allergic reactions, and are generally grouped with the priority food allergens because sulphite-sensitive individuals may react to sulphites with allergy-like symptoms.

An allergic reaction usually happens within minutes after being exposed to an allergen, but sometimes it can take place several hours after exposure. Anaphylaxis is the most serious type of allergic reaction.

Symptoms of anaphylaxis generally include two or more of the following body systems:

  • Skin: hives, swelling (face, lips, tongue), itching, warmth, redness
  • Respiratory (breathing): coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, chest pain/tightness, throat tightness, hoarse voice, nasal congestion or hay fever-like symptoms (runny itchy nose and watery eyes, sneezing), trouble swallowing
  • Gastrointestinal (stomach): nausea, pain/cramps, vomiting, diarrhea
  • Cardiovascular (heart): paler than normal skin colour/blue colour, weak pulse, passing out, dizziness or lightheadedness, shock
  • Other: anxiety, sense of doom (the feeling that something bad is about to happen), headache, uterine cramps, metallic taste

However, a drop in blood pressure without other symptoms may also indicate anaphylaxis. It is important to know that anaphylaxis can occur without hives.

If you have a sulphite sensitivity, keep an epinephrine auto-injector (e.g., EpiPen®) with you at all times. Epinephrine is the first-line treatment for severe allergic reactions (anaphylaxis).

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Be allergy-aware

  • Read ingredient labels every time you buy or eat a product.
  • Do the Triple Check and read the ingredient label:
    • Once at the store before buying it.
    • Once when you get home and put it away.
    • Again before you serve or eat the product.
  • Always carry your epinephrine auto-injector. It’s recommend that if you do not have your auto-injector with you, that you do not eat.
  • Check with manufacturers directly if you are not sure if a product is safe for you.
  • For tips on eating out, visit our guide for dining out with food allergies.
  • Be careful when buying products from outside of Canada, since labelling rules differ from country to country.
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Labelling

In Canada, sulphites are required to be labelled when added as an ingredient or component to a food at any level, with a few exceptions for ingredients that are exempted from declaring all their components.  For more information, please visit Health Canada’s web page about sulphites.

Other names for sulphites

  • Potassium bisulphite
  • Potassium metabisulphite
  • Sodium bisulphite, sodium dithionite, sodium metabisulphite, disodium sulphite, sulfite
  • Sulfur dioxide
  • Sulphiting agents
  • Sulphurous acid
  • E 220, E 221, E 222, E 223, E 224, E 225, E226, E227, E 228 (European names)
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Possible sources of sulphites

  • Alcoholic/non-alcoholic beer, cider, wine
  • Apple cider
  • Baked goods
  • Bottled lemon and lime juice/concentrate
  • Canned/frozen fruits and vegetables
  • Cereal, cornmeal, cornstarch, crackers, muesli
  • Condiments
  • Deli meats, hot dogs, sausages
  • Dressings, gravies, guacamole, sauces, soups, soup mixes
  • Dried fruits and vegetables
  • Dried herbs, spices, tea
  • Fish
  • Fresh grapes
  • Fruit fillings, fruit syrups, gelatines, jams, jellies, marmalade, molasses, pectin
  • Fruit/vegetable juices
  • Glazed/glacéed fruits
  • Processed potatoes (such as frozen French fries)
  • Snack foods
  • Soy products
  • Starches
  • Sugar syrups
  • Tomato paste/pulp/purée
  • Vinegar, wine vinegar

Non-food sources of sulphites

  • Bottle sanitizing solution for home brewing
  • Certain medications

Note: These lists are not complete and may change.

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To report a reaction

If you believe you may have reacted to added sulphites not listed on the packaging, you can report it to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which may issue a product recall. Find out more on our Food Labelling page.

Some content on this page is based on information from the Health Canada website.