Label Decoder: Sulfites

by in Food News, April 30, 2010

white wine sangria

If you’re a wine-drinker, you’ve probably seen the word “sulfite” listed on the bottles. Find out why they’re used in most wines, and which wine-lovers should be worried.

What is it?
Sulfites are also known as sulfur dioxide and sodium bisulfate (you’ll find these terms on the ingredient list). They help prevent discoloration of dried fruits, shrimp and processed potatoes. They also help prevent bacterial and yeast growth in wine which helps extend shelf life. It’s also added to slow oxidation, which preserves flavor as wine ages.

Is it safe?

Mostly, yes, although one in every 100 people with asthma is sensitive to sulfites. The sensitivity can develop at any age, and can vary from itchy skin to not being able to breathe because their throats become constricted.

In 1986, the FDA required labels to list sulfites in foods that contained small amounts of the additive. This made it impossible for restaurants and supermarkets to treat fruits and veggies with sulfites (commonly used before 1986 to prevent browning of produce). This was great news for those with sulfite sensitivities.

If you’re sensitive, you’re best bet is to read the ingredients listed on the package. You’ll also want to avoid wines containing sulfites. Wines that are labeled “100 percent organic” or “USDA organic” don’t have sulfites added; these would be an ideal choice for those with the sensitivity.

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. See Toby’s full bio »

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Comments (11)

  1. Always such insightful info here. Thanks!

  2. Nicki LaPorte says:

    I had 3/4 of one of my lungs removed and have mild COPD. When I drink wine I occasionally have breathing problems. My doctor said that hard liquor can sometimes affect a persons breathing too. Thanks for the tip on "organic" wine. That will be my choice from now on.

    • Duitch says:

      It's my understanding that there are naturally occurring sulfites in all wine, as it is found on the grapes themselves and therefore unavoidable. If you have serious reactions to it, best to avoid all wine.

      • Tlcheek says:

        That is what I have heard as well… Even wines (including organic) that claim they are "Sulfite Free" really aren't. It just means the sulfite levels are much lower than regular wines. And according to articles that I have read on the subject, there is really no established group or organization responsible for testing sulfite levels in wine. That is to say, we have to take it on FAITH that wineries are being honest about the sulfite levels. And further, according to this article I read, all the wines that have been tested including supposedly "Sulfite-Free" wines did NOT meet the criteria to be called truly Sulfite Free. So there you have it… the choice is yours but I'm certainly not drinking wine anymore…too tired of the itching & hiving.

  3. Debby says:

    I've been wondering about sulfites causing heart palpitations. Any one have any input?

  4. Beth says:

    I actually always look for wines that are organic and sulfite free and have found that bottles that are labled organic are not always sulfite free. I would still check that the bottle also says no sulfites.

  5. seriously says:

    If you're allergic to sulfites you must be cautious. The correct answer for those who are not allergic is, as always, moderation. People have been drinking wine a long time. Some nations allow their children to have a glass with their meal. What are the cancer statistics from these countries?

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