Sulphites (Sulfites) and Spices

Understanding Spices

We were asked recently if our spices and spice blends contained sulphites. It turns out that this question wasn’t straight forward, so we thought we would write a short blog to try to explain the situation with sulphites and spices. The main spices that can be treated with sulphites are garlic, ginger and onion. This doesn’t mean that they have been treated in this way and they are not the only spices (eg cinnamon) that can also be treated with sulphites.

We undertook a review and on checking our supplier specifications it showed that our raw materials are not treated with sulphites. As sulphites are listed as an allergen, products treated with and containing more than 10ppm should be labelled to include sulphites in the ingredients panel of the product label.

Unfortunately, the situation becomes a little more complicated because sulphites can be naturally occurring in certain spices and ingredients e.g. garlic, ginger and onion. So, despite not being treated with them after harvesting, levels of sulphites can vary. Products that contain naturally occurring sulphites do not need to be labelled, only those treated (regulation (EU) No 1169/2011).

We buy to strict specifications and our raw materials meet UK and EU guidelines. Both our organic spices and non organic spices must meet the same regulations in relation to sulphites.


What are Sulphites?

Sulphites are a chemical compound that occur naturally in the human body and in many foodstuffs. They can also be added to food when it is processed. Any of the following terms on food packaging indicate the inclusion of sulphites in the product’s ingredients.

  • Potassium Sulphite
  • Potassium Bisulphite
  • Potassium Metabisulphite
  • Sodium Bisulphite
  • Sodium Dithionite
  • Sodium Metabisulphite
  • Sodium Sulphite
  • Sulphur Dioxide
  • Sulphurous Acid
  • Sulphiting or Sulphating Agents
  • Calcium Bisulphate
  • Calcium Sulphite
  • Calcium Hydrogen Sulphite
  • Sulphite Ammonia Caramel
  • The ‘E’ numbers for sulphites include – E150b, E150d and E220 up to E228.

Why are Sulphites used in Food Stuffs?

Sulphites fulfill many needs. They have preservative and cleansing properties which extend the shelf life of food stuffs, maintaining their colour, inhibiting bacterial and microbial growth, bleaching food starches and conditioning dough.

They are used extensively in fruit, vegetable and cereal based products, in drinks (alcoholic and non-alcoholic), pickles and sauces. They play an important role in pharmaceutical products maintaining and stabilising the potency of medicines. The quality of many cosmetics relies on them.

Suitable for many purposes, sulphites are easy and cheap to use and have been generally accepted for hundreds of years around the globe.


Are Sulphites Safe?

Sulphites are extremely effective in the preservation of processed foods. They are also very well regulated and their use is restricted to ten parts per million (eg 10mg per litre or kilo). This does not mean that they do not get the blame for a variety of problems, many of which are not necessarily scientifically supported. That said a small number of people show an intolerance to sulphites with different symptoms of differing intensities. These can come about through diet or through exposure to sulphites in various industrial settings.

Although it must be stressed that sulphites do not present a great risk to health, any problems are most likely to be connected to artificially created sulphites. They have been known to trigger a respiratory reaction even in non asthmatics, intestinal disorders, skin inflammation, respiratory and cardiac conditions, migraines and, in extreme cases, potentially life-threatening anaphylactic shock.

If anyone is in any doubt about their own susceptibility it is very important to check all food labelling carefully. Steroid dependent asthmatics should be especially cautious. If you are super sensitive it might also be worth considering a diet low in sulphite rich ingredients and avoiding garlic, ginger and onion or products that can naturally contain these.

The benefits of sulphites in food production are enormous. This should not detract from the fact that striving to pursue a non processed, organic, plant- based diet would be the most beneficial route for our overall health and well being. As ever, ‘natural’ is best though not always easily achievable. Yet another aspiration!

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