Dr. Becky Maes - Is It Bad For You? Approved by Dr. Becky Maes

Is Sodium Bisulfite Bad For You?

Also Known As: Sodium hydrogen sulfite, E222



Short answer

Sodium bisulfite, a common preservative and antioxidant, can prolong food shelf life but may cause adverse reactions in sensitive individuals, especially asthmatics. It is regulated by the FDA and must be declared on labels. Its role in chronic diseases needs more research, while current evidence shows a low cancer risk at typical dietary levels. To avoid it, check labels, choose fresh foods, and be cautious when dining out.



Long answer

Understanding Sodium Bisulfite and Its Common Uses

Sodium bisulfite, with the chemical formula NaHSO3, is a compound that combines sodium, hydrogen, sulfur, and oxygen. Its prowess as a preservative is due to its properties as an antioxidant. By inhibiting the oxidation of other molecules, sodium bisulfite helps prevent the discoloration of food and extends its shelf life. It's important to note, however, that while serving as a guardian against spoilage, it also has some concerns attached for certain individuals, particularly those with asthma or sulfite sensitivities.

Traditionally, let's explore the diverse arenas where sodium bisulfite has made its mark:

  • Food Industry: Sodium bisulfite is widely used as a preservative in food items, especially those prone to oxidation such as dried fruits, wines, and molasses, preserving color and preventing bacterial growth.
  • Winemaking: In the winemaking process, sodium bisulfite plays a crucial role. It sterilizes and preserves the wine by preventing oxidation and bacterial growth, which can spoil the flavor and decrease shelf life.
  • Bleaching Agent: It acts as a bleaching agent in the production of coconut cream and some starches, giving them a pristine white appearance preferred by consumers.
  • Pharmaceuticals: Due to its preservative qualities, sodium bisulfite is sometimes found in pharmaceuticals, to extend the lifespan of medications.

Despite its utility, the application of sodium bisulfite comes with a host of regulations owing to potential health risks. Food industries must remain vigilant when it comes to labeling products that contain this additive, as it's one of the substances recognized by the FDA that must be declared on food labels due to its allergenic potential. Moreover, the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has set stringent occupational exposure limits, reflecting the care needed when handling compounds like sodium bisulfite in industrial settings.

Highlighting a few scientific perspectives, researchers continue to investigate the effects of sodium bisulfite on health. A study found in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture details how sulfites, including sodium bisulfite, can induce adverse reactions in sensitive individuals. Such reactions can range from mild to potentially life-threatening, with asthmatic individuals being particularly at risk.

In the grand tapestry of food additives, sodium bisulfite plays a dual role. It’s a celebrated protector against spoilage and a dark horse for those sensitive to its effects. The benefits are quite clear in terms of shelf life and food quality. Yet, balancing those perks with health considerations continues to be a focal point of discussions amongst consumers, producers, and regulators alike.

Allergic Reactions and Sensitivity to Sulfites

Navigating the complexities of food additives can sometimes feel like tiptoeing through a well-stocked pantry of mystery ingredients. Sodium bisulfite is one such pantry-dweller that deserves a closer look, especially when it comes to allergic reactions and sulfite sensitivity. So, join me as we unpack the facts to better understand how sodium bisulfite may affect those with allergies or sensitivities.

Sulfites, including sodium bisulfite, are widely used as preservatives to prevent bacterial growth and to maintain the color and freshness of foods. However, they can also trigger allergic reactions in some individuals. This sensitivity is recognized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which requires that foods containing significant amounts of sulfites display this information on their labels. But what does a sulfite sensitivity look like?

  • Respiratory Symptoms: For individuals with asthma, inhaling sulfite-containing foods can provoke respiratory symptoms ranging from a mild wheeze to a potential full-blown asthma attack.
  • Dermatological Issues: Itchy skin or hives may occur in some people after consuming sulfite-rich foods, suggesting a dermal sensitivity.
  • Gastrointestinal Distress: Nausea, stomach cramps, and diarrhea can arise, possibly due to an intolerance to sulfites, rather than a true allergy.
  • Anaphylaxis: Although rare, severe reactions leading to anaphylaxis can occur in some cases, demanding immediate medical attention.

In talking about sulfite sensitivity, it is important to note that it is not a true allergy in the immunoglobulin E (IgE)-mediated sense but rather a sensitivity or intolerance. The Cleveland Clinic estimates that sulfite sensitivity affects approximately 1% of Americans, with asthmatics being more prone to sulfite-related complications. Moreover, a study documented in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition indicates that sulfite sensitivity may lead to symptoms such as bronchoconstriction in susceptible individuals.

While sulfites occur naturally in some foods like fermented beverages and wines, sodium bisulfite is often added to processed foods. The list of foods that may contain sulfites is extensive, including but not limited to dried fruits, bottled lemon juice, wine, and molasses. For those with sulfite sensitivities, steering clear of such additives is akin to culinary course-correcting; it involves vigilance and often a dash of detective work when reading labels.

If you suspect you have a sulfite sensitivity, the best course of action is to seek guidance from a healthcare provider. They may recommend keeping a food diary, trying an elimination diet, or referring you to an allergist for further evaluation. Remember: your health narrative is unique, and understanding your body's responses to certain foods, including additives like sodium bisulfite, is pivotal to crafting your well-being story.

So, whether you're a food label sleuth or someone who just loves to be in the know, understanding allergic reactions and sensitivity to sulfites is essential. With this knowledge, you can make more informed decisions about the foods you choose to nourish your body and enjoy your culinary adventures worry-free.

The Role of Sodium Bisulfite in Chronic Disease

Unwrapping the connection between sodium bisulfite and chronic diseases is an intricate endeavor, but it's crucial for understanding how this commonplace preservative might impact our long-term health. Chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, respiratory disorders, and diabetes are multifaceted conditions with numerous contributing factors, but let's explore some of the current research and evidence that suggests how sodium bisulfite could potentially influence these conditions.

Respiratory Diseases and Allergies

One of the areas where sodium bisulfite has drawn particular attention is in its potential effect on individuals with asthma and other respiratory issues. According to a study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, sodium bisulfite can trigger bronchoconstriction in some people with asthma, which is a tightening of the airways that can lead to difficulty breathing and other respiratory symptoms. This reaction is more pronounced in those with more severe and poorly controlled asthma.

Inflammation and Autoimmune Diseases

Although the direct link between sodium bisulfite and autoimmune diseases is not widely established, the relation to inflammation might provide clues to potential impacts. The immune system's response to foreign substances can sometimes result in excessive inflammation, a common underlying factor in many autoimmune diseases. Some experts argue that food additives, including preservatives like sodium bisulfite, might exacerbate an already hyper-active immune response, although more research is required to solidify this hypothesis.

Cardiovascular Health

Cardiovascular disease is another area of concern with many preservatives, due to their relationship with increased oxidative stress and inflammation which are known risk factors for heart disease. Sodium bisulfite can prompt these issues if consumed in large amounts over extended periods. However, definitive conclusions about its role in heart health are not yet clear, necessitating more focused longitudinal studies.

Cancer Risk Factors

When it comes to cancer, the conversation around preservatives like sodium bisulfite becomes particularly sensitive. While sodium bisulfite itself is not classified as a carcinogen, certain studies have examined how it reacts with food components, potentially forming harmful substances. For instance, it may react with certain nutrients, diminishing their availability or altering their function in ways that could perturb the delicate balance of cell growth and apoptosis (cell death), which is a critical aspect of cancer prevention.

In conclusion, while we do not yet have definitive evidence that sodium bisulfite directly causes chronic diseases, we do see potential pathways that highlight the need for caution. Individuals, especially those with pre-existing health concerns, should be mindful of their sodium bisulfite intake. As always, balance and moderation in consumption are key, and choosing fresh, whole foods over processed options can minimize exposure to preservatives in general.

Please note that this section does not provide medical advice or a definitive examination of the health impacts of sodium bisulfite. Instead, it aims to inform about potential risks and associations with chronic diseases, as understood from current scientific literature and recommendations.

Assessing the Cancer Risk: Myths and Facts

When it comes to sodium bisulfite, a commonly used preservative in the food and beverage industry, there has been significant debate over its potential cancer risks. This preservative falls under the category of sulfites, which are known for their ability to inhibit microbial growth and prevent browning in foods, but their safety is often questioned. Let's dive into the myths and facts surrounding the cancer risk of sodium bisulfite to clarify the concerns and understand what the science says.

Myth: Sodium Bisulfite Is a Direct Carcinogen

Many consumers worry that sodium bisulfite is a direct carcinogen, meaning it could cause cancer by itself. However, this fear isn’t supported by concrete scientific evidence. While some laboratory studies have shown that sulfites can damage DNA, which is a potential step towards cancer, these studies often involve concentrations much higher than what humans would typically consume. Furthermore, human epidemiological data does not support the notion that sodium bisulfite directly causes cancer in the amounts found in food.

Fact: Current Research Indicates Low Cancer Risk for General Population

Research has shown that for the general population, the consumption of sodium bisulfite at levels approved for use in foods is not linked to an increased cancer risk. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has not classified sulfites as carcinogens, and the FDA classifies them as "Generally Recognized as Safe" (GRAS) at regulated levels (FDA's Food Additive Status List).

Myth: All Processed Foods Containing Sodium Bisulfite Are Harmful

It's a common belief that any food containing sodium bisulfite is inherently harmful and should be avoided to reduce cancer risk. However, not all processed foods are created equal. Sodium bisulfite is used in varying amounts and in different ways, and its presence alone does not guarantee a health risk. If used within safe and regulated limits, it can prevent spoilage and protect against potentially harmful bacterial growth without posing a significant health hazard.

Fact: Sensitivity to Sulfites Can Expose Individuals to Higher Risks

Although the general population might not be at an increased cancer risk from sulfites, individuals with heightened sensitivity or certain health conditions, such as asthma, might be at a higher risk for adverse reactions. While these reactions are more often related to respiratory issues than cancer, a greater understanding of personal sensitivities can inform safer dietary choices. Those with known sulfite sensitivities should be vigilant about food labels and consult with healthcare providers regarding their risks (Potential effects of sulfites on health).

Myth: Organic Foods Are Always Sulfite-Free

While it's true that organic certification standards restrict the use of some synthetic preservatives, including sulfites, it’s important to bear in mind that sulfites can occur naturally in foods, especially fermented products like wine and beer. Look for products with labels stating "sulfite-free" or "no added sulfites" if this is a concern for you.

In conclusion, the cancer risk associated with sodium bisulfite consumption is a complex issue, fraught with myths and misconceptions. The best approach is to understand your own health needs, read labels carefully, and consult with health professionals if you have a sulfite sensitivity or other health concerns. Current research does not support the claim that sodium bisulfite is a significant cancer risk for the general population when consumed in food at FDA-regulated levels.

Regulatory Status and Industry Standards for Sodium Bisulfite

Sodium bisulfite is a chemical compound with a variety of uses, including its role as a preservative in the food industry. Understanding its regulatory status and industry standards is crucial for gauging its safety in consumption. Here, we'll break down what you need to know in an easy-to-digest format.

In the United States, sodium bisulfite is recognized as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) when used in accordance with good manufacturing practices. The FDA has approved the use of sodium bisulfite as a food additive for its antioxidative properties, which helps to preserve the freshness and prevent the discoloration of certain foods.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) categorizes sodium bisulfite as a food additive and assigns it the E number E222. As with FDA guidelines, its usage in food products is permitted within certain concentrations to ensure consumer safety. The EFSA conducts scientific assessments to determine the acceptable daily intake levels and revisits these evaluations periodically to incorporate the latest research findings.

Globally, the Codex Alimentarius, which is developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), also provides guidelines and standards for the use of food additives, including sodium bisulfite. The Codex standards are often used internationally to inform food safety legislation and promote food safety across borders.

It's important to note that, while regulatory agencies deem sodium bisulfite safe for consumption within set limits, manufacturers are required to list it on food labels due to possible allergic reactions or sensitivities in some individuals. Asthmatics and those with sulfite sensitivity need to be particularly vigilant, as sodium bisulfite can provoke adverse reactions.

Moreover, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in the United States categorizes sodium bisulfite as a hazardous substance, based on its potential health hazards when handled in large quantities in industrial settings. Guidelines are in place to ensure workers' safety through proper handling and usage procedures, further emphasizing the importance of caution when dealing with chemicals, even those that are deemed safe for consumption in small amounts.

Here's a glance at key points regarding the regulatory status of sodium bisulfite:

  • FDA: Classified as GRAS with restricted use in certain food products.
  • EFSA: Assigned the E number E222, with acceptable daily intake levels regularly reviewed.
  • Codex Alimentarius: Provides international standards for safe use in foods.
  • Food Labeling: Must be listed to alert consumers with sensitivities.
  • OSHA: Categorizes as a hazardous substance in industrial settings.

While sodium bisulfite is approved for use within specific limits, awareness of its regulatory status helps consumers make informed decisions about their dietary choices. The acknowledgment of potential risks by regulatory bodies reinforces the importance of moderated use and alerts to the necessity for clear labeling, enabling consumers to avoid it if necessary.

How to Identify and Avoid Sodium Bisulfite in Your Diet

Embarking on the quest to identify and curb the intake of sodium bisulfite in your diet can lead you to become an ingredient-sleuth of sorts. This food additive, known for its preservative and antioxidant properties, lurks in various foods and beverages. Here's a useful guide to spotting this elusive ingredient and minimizing its presence in your daily consumption:

Label Literacy: Always begin by reading food labels meticulously. Scrutinize the ingredients list for terms like sodium bisulfite, E222, or sodium hydrogen sulfite. The United States Food and Drug Administration mandates the listing of sulfite agents like sodium bisulfite on food labels when used in processed foods, so keep a vigilant eye for this descriptor.

  • Check for synonyms such as sodium pyrosulfite or disodium salt.
  • Be aware of the potential presence in both branded and generic products.

Common Culprits: Some common food items that may contain sodium bisulfite include:

  • Dried fruits (excluding dark-colored fruits like prunes, dates, and raisins)
  • Bottled lemon and lime juice
  • Wine and beer
  • Packaged seafood like shrimp and lobster
  • Condiments such as horseradish, salad dressings, and relishes
  • Potato products, like frozen fries or dehydrated potatoes

Holistic and Whole Foods Emphasis: One effective strategy to avoid sodium bisulfite is by predominantly choosing fresh, whole foods over processed ones. Opting for organic produce can also minimize exposure, as organic regulations restrict the use of certain food additives.

  • Embrace the farmer's market and local, seasonal produce.
  • Prepare homemade versions of foods that typically contain sulfites.

Awareness in Dining Out: When eating out, it's essential to communicate with restaurant staff. Inform them of your need to avoid sulfites and ask about the ingredients in their dishes. Chefs can often provide meals free from these additives upon request.

Stay Informed: Keep abreast of new research and regulations regarding food additives like sodium bisulfite. Recommended limits and guidelines may change, and staying informed will ensure your diet evolves along with the latest health recommendations.

  • Consult with a dietician or nutritionist for personalized advice.
  • Join online communities and forums dedicated to sulfite sensitivity and relevant dietary practices.

While avoiding sodium bisulfite completely may be challenging due to its widespread usage, becoming an informed consumer can significantly reduce your intake. By learning where this additive is commonly found, seeking out whole and organic foods, and maintaining open communication when dining out, you can make empowered choices for your health and well-being.

Frequently asked questions

Yes, there are natural alternatives to sodium bisulfite, such as ascorbic acid (vitamin C), which can act as an antioxidant to prevent spoilage. Additionally, using natural food preservation methods like freezing, drying, or canning with high-temperature processing can help extend the shelf life of foods without the need for sodium bisulfite.

Sodium bisulfite is typically not found in fresh produce. It is primarily added to processed foods to extend shelf life and prevent discoloration. However, sulfites can occur naturally in some foods, especially fermented foods and beverages. To avoid sodium bisulfite, it's best to consume fresh, unprocessed fruits and vegetables.

When dining out, consumers should inform the server or chef of their sulfite sensitivity and ask about ingredients in dishes that might contain sulfites, like sauces, dressings, or marinated foods. It's also wise to stick to simple, minimally processed dishes, as they're less likely to contain sodium bisulfite or other sulfites.

Yes, while individuals with asthma or known sulfite sensitivities are at a higher risk for adverse reactions to sodium bisulfite, it's possible for others to experience symptoms like gastrointestinal distress or skin reactions. These symptoms could be an indication of a previously unrecognized sensitivity to sulfites.

Ask a question about Sodium Bisulfite and our team will publish the answer as soon as possible.

Possible short-term side effects

  • respiratory symptoms
  • dermatological issues
  • gastrointestinal distress
  • anaphylaxis

Possible long-term side effects

  • exacerbation of asthma
  • potential bronchoconstriction
  • increased oxidative stress and inflammation
  • possible impact on autoimmunity

Commonly found in

  • dried fruits
  • wines
  • molasses
  • bottled lemon juice
  • potato products
  • condiments

Ingredients to be aware of


  • preserves freshness
  • prevents food discoloration
  • inhibits microbial growth
  • extends shelf life

Healthier alternatives

  • fresh, whole foods
  • organic produce
  • homemade versions of processed foods
  • vitamin c as a natural preservative

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Rachel Adams
Published on: 12-01-2023

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Rachel Adams
Published on: 12-01-2023

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