In my research tour through Europe to speak with experts about sulfite intolerance, sulfites in wine and much more, my first stop is with Margreet Timmer. She is a dietician with a specialty in adult food allergy and intolerance.
Is it a sulfite allergy or intolerance?
Even though sulfite is on the European list of allergens, a reaction to sulfite is more likely to be an intolerance than an allergy. Your body’s response to sulfite is generally not to create the substances that it would in case of an allergy. But the symptoms of a sulfite intolerance may more closely resemble those of an allergy.
There are of course different grades of sensitivity. Some people experience slightly unpleasant symptoms, while others suffer from significant complaints when they consume in sulfites.
A sensitivity to sulfite can show up as a contact allergy. In this case, a dermatologist can check this by using a patch test. If the results of this are negative, then you may be experiencing a reaction to sulfites. Also, people with asthma can react to sulfites – even suffering asthma attacks as a reaction to consuming sulfite.
I have a sulfite intolerance, what do I do now?
If the diagnosis has been made by a specialist, then you can see a dietician. An experienced dietician can help you to adjust your diet in order to avoid sulfites as much as possible. Make sure you ask whether the dietician knows about reactions to and symptoms of sulfite intolerance when you make your appointment, as this is a specialist area within dietetics.
Organic is ideal!
The dietician can help you to avoid the major sources of sulfite. One of the most important tips I can pass on from my conversation with Margreet is this: “For a number of products such as sugar, syrup and potato products it’s better to buy organic. Because of the (legal) requirements organic products have to meet, they are not allowed to contain any, or very little, sulfites (excluding possible errors in production)”. (Tip from Jacqueline: if sulfite is used as a processing assistant to produce the food and the level of sulfite that remains in the end product is below the legal threshold, sulfite does not have to be listed as an ingredient. These amounts, when added up together, can still cause complaints if you have a sulfite sensitivity; that’s why advice from a dietician is really helpful for sulfite intolerances!).
How do I recognise sulfite and what products is it in?
Sulfite comes under various names and can generally be recognised by the following E numbers: E220-228, E150B+d, E163. It’s also listed on wine bottles as sulfite, and is also used in hospitality under the name sulfur dioxide or SO2. As explained above, sulfite is often ‘hidden’ in many foods. Good examples are (caster) sugar, syrup, crisps, crackers and other products made from white flour.
It’s also contained in wine, dried fruits, instant mashed potato, lemon juice in bottles or prepackaged fruit juices.
But I never used to have a problem with wine…
Yes, I know. Too bad. Not everything improves with age. And more women are sulfite sensitive than men. But it seems that in practice – as you get older – you can also grow more sensitive to sulfite, due to changes in your hormone balance.
As the years pass you can also become more sensitive to alcohol. So it can also be worthwhile observing whether you only have complaints after drinking wine, or also after other alcoholic beverages.
Don’t play doctor…
I suspect everyone who has an internet connection does this. Looking up what you have and what you can do about it. Some websites claim you should take glutathione or molybdenum supplements to deal with your sulfite sensitivity. Margreet Timmer advises against this. It’s basically not possible to deal with the sensitivity in this way. And these elements could also block the absorption of other (good) substances in your body. You really shouldn’t add this to your diet based purely on your own diagnosis – only do so after consultation with a doctor or an orthomolecular therapist.
Wine and sulfite
Given that there is sulfite in every wine, it’s one of the products a dietician will recommend you avoid if you have a sulfite intolerance. If you still want to enjoy a glass of wine, you’re better off drinking wine which does not contain added sulfites (e.g. wines in a special range from Stellar Organics) or to use Sulfree in your wine.