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Is Sodium Metabisulfite Bad For You?

Also Known As: sodium pyrosulfite



Short answer

Sodium metabisulfite as found in foods is safe for most people. However, people with allergies to sulfites and asthmatics should avoid anything containing sulfites.



Long answer

Sodium metabisulfite is an organic salt commonly use in the healthcare and food industries. As a food additive, it is used as a preservative. When used as a health product it is used most often in hair care products. A further common use of sodium metabisulfite is as a disinfectant. So, is it bad for you? Well, that depends entirely on the amount of exposure. The sodium metabisulfite that helps keep your food fresher longer isn't going to harm you. Multiple studies have been done and no carcinogenic effects have been found. There are some studies that indicate sulfite can cause copper levels in the kidney to rise, but any sulfite you are getting from sodium metabisulfite has been diluted far more than what was used in the experiment. In fact, a reaction to sodium metabisulfite will most likely occur only in people who are allergic to sulfite or in people who are exposed to pure sodium metabisulfite. 

When pure sodium metabisulfite is ingested, it can cause gastrointestinal damage by releasing sulfurous acid as it comes into contact with stomach acid. Inhaled, sodium metabisulfite is a strong irritant and can cause shortness of breath and coughing. Sodium metabisulfite is also a skin and eye irritant . 

Another danger is its decomposition. Although it is noncombustible, when heated, sodium metabisulfite releases poisonous gasses including sulfur oxides. Also, sodium metabisulfite is known to render some medications, particularly those belonging to the epinephrine family, inactive. 

While it is safe for most who are not allergic to sulfites, sodium metabisulfite has been shown to make asthma symptoms worse. Furthermore, sulfites are known to destroy thiamine (vitamin B1). 

Still, if you are wondering if the sodium metabisulfite in your food will contribute to an early death - the answer is very unlikely. Remember that it isn't pure sodium metabisulfite which is in your food and other chemicals neutralize its toxicity.

Possible short-term side effects

  • coughing
  • shortness of breath
  • allergic reaction
  • skin rash
  • itchy eyes
  • exacerbates asthma

Ingredients to be aware of

  • sulfur oxide (upon decomposition)
  • sulfite

Healthier alternatives

  • avoid processed food

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Written by Jeff Volling | 02-07-2016

Written by Jeff Volling
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