What are sulfites, and why do all American wines seem to have them, and should I let this bother me?
Illustration by Slug Signorino
It’s not a question of letting anything bother you, Jim-san. If sulfites want to bother you, they will, possibly by triggering your untimely death. In fact, sulfites are the only additives now in use that are known to kill people. Fortunately, deaths are rare and result from what amounts to an extreme allergic reaction. If you’ve drunk your share of wine and you’re still breathing, you’re probably safe.
Sulfiting agents, which are used as preservatives in wine and other products, are mainly a problem for asthmatics, 5 to 10 percent of whom — perhaps 500,000 people in the U.S. — are sulfite-sensitive. Since 1982 at least six people have died from severe asthma attacks apparently caused by sulfite-treated foods. All six cases occurred in restaurants, where it’s impossible to read ingredient labels and where the servers usually have no idea whether the food contains sulfites or not.
Sulfiting agents include sulfur dioxide (commonly used in wine), potassium metabisulfite, sodium sulfite, sodium bisulfite, and sodium metabisulfite. In wine they’re used to prevent discoloration, bacterial growth, and fermentation. They’re also used to prevent discoloration in shrimp, raisins and other dried fruit, potatoes, lettuce, and other vegetables. Restaurants like sulfites because they can keep an ancient salad looking fresh. Years ago crooked butchers used to use bisulfite, a sulfite derivative, to give spoiled meat a fresh red appearance, a practice that’s now illegal.
The World Health Organization recommends a daily limit of 42 milligrams of sulfites for a 132-pound person. It’s estimated that half the U.S. population is over the limit, and it’s not hard to see why: a four-ounce glass of wine contains about 40 milligrams of sulfur dioxide, a green salad 160, and three ounces of dried apricots 175. At the urging of consumer groups, the Food and Drug Administration has banned the use of sulfites in most fresh fruits and vegetables and required labeling for sulfites used in packaged goods.
The feds now require labeling on all alcoholic beverages containing more than 10 parts per million of sulfites (wine typically contains 125-250 PPM). I’m told it’s possible to find sulfite-free wines — try health food stores — but if they’re not available, sulfite-sensitive folk should probably stick to lemonade.
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