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A Few Words About Sulfites (Sulphites)

Sulfites are sulfur compounds  having sulphur and oxygen (in the form of SO2 as part of the molecule) used to preserve and enhance color in foods. They are banned in the meat industry because they can make rotten meat look good. They are widely used in the dried fruit business and must be listed on the label. Common names you will encounter on labels are:

  • Potassium bisulphite / metabisulphite;   
  • Sodium bisulphite / dithionite / metabisulphite / sulphite
  • Sulfur dioxide,        Sulphiting agents,    Sulphurous acid

E 220, E 221, E 222, E 223, E 224, E 225, E 226, E 227, E 228 (European names)

Notice that the use of sulfite and sulphite are interchangeable spellings and only reflect American versus Canadian English.

Sulphites are one of the nine most common food products causing severe adverse reactions. This is explained in sufficient detail on the Health Canada website at

However I would like to bring a sense of balance to a commonly misunderstood subject. Sulphites do not cause allergic reactions. They cause symptoms in sensitive people that may resemble allergic response. Asthmatics are the group of people most concerned in this regard.

The World Health Organization has determined safe and acceptable levels of sulphite use and gives this information on their site of the International Program for Chemical Safety located at

Here we find that “The Committee established a group ADI for sulfites of 0-0.7 mg/kg bw."

Sulphite Drop Tests

ADI means “acceptable daily intake” and the dose is expressed in terms of  “mg/kg bw” which means milligrams per kilogram of bodyweight. Therefore a 70 kg person (154 pounds) can consume 49 milligrams of sulphites per day.

“In the United States, the vast majority of sulfite (as SO2) is used in making high-fructose corn syrup, in which little residual sulfite remains (< 10 ppm) before formulation into food products. As significant quantities of sulfite are lost by evaporation during processing and storage of foods.”

In 1982 sulfur dioxide, sodium sulfite, sodium and potassium bisulfite and sodium and potassium metabisulfite were classified GRAS (generally recognized as safe) by the US FDA.

This is published on page 6 of

A study by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in 1985, since corroborated by other studies, reported that (reasonable levels of) sulphites pose no hazard for most Americans. The exception is certain asthmatics who are sensitive to them. According to Dr. Mary Custer, consumer safety officer for the F.D.A.'s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, 22 of the 42 established categories of foods may contain sulphites; a total of seven million pounds are used annually. The list of possible sulphite-containing foods includes everything from baked goods, snack foods and soup mixes to beer and fruits. The F.D.A. estimates that about half the people who consume sulphites exceed the recommended amount.

On the subject of asthmatics I give you this report:

“Prevalence of sensitivity to sulfiting agents in asthmatic patients” located at: Asthmatic patients

Dr Robert K. Bush M.D. is a leading researcher in this field working at the Department of Medicine and the Food Research Institute, the University of Wisconsin, and the William S. Middleton Veterans' Hospital, Madison, Wisconsin, USA

Sulphite Testing

At PubMed we learn that the Monier-Williams test is the preferred method. Read here

At Sun Life Goji we use Gelda Scientific for our product testing and they contract with Maxxam Analytics to do the Monier-Williams Sulphite test for us. This is published with our organic documents and can be read in the last column of the Gelda report as “Sulphur Dioxide in Solids” with the quantity stated as “ND” which means not detected.

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