Sulfite Sensitivity …An Unrecognized Threat

Tuesday, June 23, 2015    ARTICLE FROM LATE 70’S…Has a wealth of information and also suggested Doctor’s get well versed on this hidden danger…and they still haven’t and its 2015.  Take the time to read it, its really a good article.

Sulfite Sensitivity …An Unrecognized Threat:  Is Molybdenum Deficiency the Cause?

Article by Rhoda Papaioannou, M.S., and Carl C. Pfeiffer, M.D., Ph.D.

Sulfur dioxide and other so-called sulfiting
agents as additives in foods and drugs may
cause severe allergic reactions in susceptible
individuals, especially asthmatics. The most
widely used chemical preservatives, they have
become a subject of in
creasing concern since
1976. The issue was recently brought to national
attention by a CBS “60 Minutes” report on
sulfite sensitivity aired twice in 1983.
“Sulfites” is a generic term for a group of
compounds including sulfur dioxide, sodium
sulfite, sodium and potassium bisulfite and
sodium and potassium metabisulfite. They are
antioxidants useful for their antimicrobial action
and prevention of enzymatic and nonenzymatic
discoloration (browning) of foods. Sulfites have
been listed by the FDA as Generally
Recognized as Safe (GRAS) for use in food,
with a proviso, however, that they not be used in
foods which are substantia
l sources of thiamine
(vitamin Bl). Sulfites destroy thiamine.
Currently, the Center for Science in the Public
Interest, armed with data from Scripps Clinic
and Research Foundation a
nd other institutions,
is applying pressure on the FDA to tighten
Sulfite-Containing Foods
There is a history of use dating back to
ancient Egypt and Rome when fumes of burning
sulfur were used as a sanitizing agent in wine-
making. The use of sulfur dioxide persists in
several stages of wine-making today. Virtually
all domestic and foreign wines and beers and
many soft drinks contain the preservative.
Sulfiting of other foods, particularly meats and
fish, is centuries old but the popularity of salad
bars in restaurants has probably brought con-
sumption to an all-time high. Fruits and
vegetables dipped in bisulfite look fresh and crisp
and won’t discolor even as they become stale.
Restaurants also use them on shellfish and fried
potatoes. Sulfur dioxide is used on virtually all
dehydrated fruits and vegetables (eg. apricots,
garlic powder) to preserve, color and flavor as
well as to aid in the retention of ascorbic acid and
carotene. Sulfites are commonly used in vinegar,
pickles, relishes, olives and sauerkraut and in
concentrates of bulk juices and purees such as
tomato (eventually to be processed into
consumer products). They are used in the
processing of many food ingredients such as
gelatin, beet sugar, corn sweeteners
Princeton Brain Bio Center
862 Route 518
Skillman, New Jersey 08558.
and food starches. There is no FDA restriction
on use by food wholesal
ers, restaurants and
groceries (with the exception of thiamine-
containing foods). Only food processors are
required to list sulfiting agents on package
labels. Thus, sulfites in some fruit drinks and in
commercial baked goods might appear on the
label, but sulfites in tomato juice, sauces or
pizzas prepared from bulk concentrates,
probably would not.
Sulfite-Containing Drugs
Sulfites may be found in a number of
parenteral medications within the following
categories: antiemetics
, cardiovascular pre-
parations, antibiotics, psychotropic drugs, IV
solutions, analgesics, an
esthetics, steroids and
nebulized bronchodilator solutions.
Some specific drugs among these product
categories are: gentamycin ampoules, trime-
thoprim infusion, Bactrim infusion (trimethoprim
and sulfamethoxazole), procaine injection
(Novocaine), prochlorperazine ampoules
(Compazine), morphine injection and
promethazine injection (Phenergan).
Ironically, many of the drugs used to ease
respiratory distress due to bronchospasm of
asthmatics contain meta
bisulfite, viz. dexa-
methasone, epinephrine (Adrenalin), ethyl-
norepinephrine (Bronkephrine), isoetharine
(Bronkosol), isoproterenol (Isuprel) and
metaproterenol (Metaprel). Metoclopra-mide,
commonly used to ease gastrointestinal distress
of asthmatics and allerg
ic individuals, also
contains metabisulfite and life-threatening
episodes of asthma after administration of this
drug have been reported in both the major
medical journal of America (Twarog and
Leung, 1982) and Australia (Baker et al., 1981).
Bronchospasm has been observed in asthmatics
receiving nebulised gentamicin, and Dally et
al. (1978) have suggested that the bisulphite
preservative is responsible. Sulfite must be
held suspect in any of the other medications
known to cause bronchospasm. Further
compounding the problem
, patients cannot
avoid sulfites and other additives to which they
may be sensitive because they are considered an
“inactive ingredient” and need not appear
either on drug labels, in the accompanying
literature, or the Physician’s Desk Reference.
The aforementioned list cannot therefore be
sidered complete, and the physician or patient
must question the drug company before any
inhalant, injection or I.V. medication is
administered if sulfite sensitivity is suspected. As
the wary gravida in Semmelweis’ day, the
asthmatic or allergic individual might do well to
shun the hospital where sulfites abound in
parenteral solutions. Although reports of life-
threatening asthma attacks attributable to
bisulfite in drugs are now appearing in the
literature (Twarog and Le
ung, 1982 and Baker
et al., 1981), we can only guess at the
prevalence and severity
of this newly dis-
covered iatrogenic disorder.
Sulfur Dioxide in Air
Another source of insult,
other than food and
drugs, to the sulfite-sensitive individual is sulfur
dioxide in polluted urban air, and
concentrations may be especially high on
foggy days and in the vicinity of coal and oil-
burning plants. In industrialized countries coal or
oil-fired electric power plants account for 75
percent of the sulfur-oxide emission. The
electric-power industry is
proliferating rapidly
and it is projected that such emission will
increase several-fold
by the year 2000.
Brief exposure to sulfur dioxide in concen-
trations of 5ppm or greater produces bron-
choconstriction in most normal persons.
Individuals with mild asthma, however, have a
much lower threshold to sulfur dioxide and
suffer bronchoconstriction at concentrations
well below currently accepted standards for
occupational exposure (Sheppard et al., 1980).
A more recent report (Sheppard et al., 1981)
provides data that moderate exercise increases
the bronchoconstriction in asthmatics even
further, thus reducing their level of tolerance to
one-tenth their resting state level. Exercise
itself has long been known to cause
bronchoconstriction in persons with asthma,
and so-called exercise asthma has been
labeled “intrinsic asthma” as opposed to
“extrinsic” or “allergic asthma” because the
disease was not clearly related to exogenous
allergens. Intrinsic or cryptogenic asthma also
includes sufferers whose symptoms are
triggered by such nonallergenic factors as
infection, changes in ba
rometric pressure or
temperature, and emotional stress. In view of
the newly established allergy to ingested
sulfites, it will be interesting to see whether
“exercise asthma” is in fact an allergy to
sulfur dioxide, hence another true “extrinsic
asthma”. It may be that asthmatic symptoms to
very low levels in ai
r are manifested only
during exercise when there is a lower
threshold of tolerance. Indeed, in support of
such a thesis, Werth (1982) describes a case of
sensitivity to inhaled but not ingested
metabisulfite. A patient with a long history of
exercise-induced asthma later observed similar
symptoms upon ingestion of certain foods
(notably dried apricots and Catawba grape
juice, and less predictably, beer, wine, cheese,
blueberries, apples and strawberries).
Encapsulated metabisulfite had no effect but
merely sniffing dried apricots brought on an
attack. The author suggests that respiratory
symptoms after ingestion of beer, wine, cheese
and dried fruits, long assumed to be due to
molds, may be metabisulfite sensitivity.
Furthermore, inhaling chemicals such as
metabisulfite in foods may provoke symptoms
erroneously attributed to ingestion. Thus, some
may do well to guard their noses against foods
as well as against chimney stacks.
More Case Histories
The current controversy, which is forcing the
FDA to review the GRAS status of sulfites
and to impose new guidelines and stringent
labeling, began with a case reported by Prenner
and Stevens in 1976. The patient, a 50 year old
male with no history of allergic rhinitis, asthma
or eczema, experienced systemic allergic
reactions, characterized as anaphylaxis, within
minutes after eating in a restaurant. His
treatment required emergency hospitalization.
The agent responsible was identified as sodium
bisulfite which produced classical wheal and
flare reaction in a scratch test. With oral
provocative challenge, signs and symptoms
similar to those following the restaurant meal
were produced. Since then, many other such
incidents have surfaced, the most dramatic,
reported in JAMA (Twarog and Leung, 1982),
being of an asthmatic woman who
experienced recurrent episodes of wheezing
while eating restaurant meals. During one
hospitalization she was treated with
isoetharine (contains sulfite preservative) for
mild wheezing, after which she experienced
respiratory arrest. On
a rehospitalization for
wheezing and abominable pain she was again
isoetharine and again suffered respiratory failure
from which she was rescued, only to succumb
once more when treated with metoclo-pramide for
her abdominal pain. The culprit was finally
identified as bisulfite, an ingredient common to the
restaurant fare, the isoetharine and the
Common Symptoms
Symptoms which have been reported as
commonly experienced by sulfite-sensitve
individuals include: wheezing, labored
breathing, chest-tightness, cough, faintness,
extreme shortness of breath, respiratory arrest,
loss of consciousness, blue discoloration of skin,
flushing, angioedema, hives, laryngeal edema,
hypotension, generalized itching, contact
dermatitis, episodic swelling of hands, feet and
eye areas, mood changes, clammy skin,
abdominal cramps, nausea, diarrhea and
anaphylactic shock.
Adverse Doses vs.
Common Exposure
Tests show that 10-50 mg of oral and as low
as 0.25 to 1 mg of inhaled sulfite elicit adverse
reactions. The average daily consumption of
most Americans is estimated at 2 to 3 mg/day
and climbs to 5 to 10 mg/day for wine and beer
drinkers. Restaurant patrons may consume 25 to
100 mg or more in one meal. These average doses
are deceivingly low, for they include people who
have only an occasional glass of wine or beer.
(Since finished wines may have up to 350 ppm
sulfite, a half bottle of wine alone may contain 125
mg and the salad bar, that much again!)
According to a Monsanto Technical Bulletin,
recommended levels of sulfur dioxide in
dehydrated fruits and vegetables at Start of
Storage may vary from a low of 200 to a high of
2000 ppm. This could amount to 56 mg in 1 oz of
dried apricots so that a handful weighing 4 oz
might contain over 200 mg of the preservative!
A typical therapeutic dose of Bronkosol
(inhalation isoetharine) reported to have
provoked an anaphylactic episode (Twarog and
Leung, 1982) contains 1 mg sulfite.
Bronkephrine (ethylnorepinephrine injection)
and Adrenalin (epinephrine injection) contain
between 1 and 2 mg bisulfite. The usual dose of
Novocaine (procaine) injection may contain 100
mg of bisulfite!
As to sulfur dioxide in air, new findings show
that normal individuals may develop
bronchospasm at a sulfur dioxide level of 6
ppm and asthmatics at a level of only 1 ppm
(Sheppard et al., 1980). Exercising asthmatics,
however, will suffer at a level of 0.1 ppm
(Sheppard et al., 1981), a concentration often
exceeded in polluted urban air, let alone in
industrial workplaces. Yet the Occupational
Safety and Health Administration allows 5 ppm
over an eight hour work shift. Since this is a
time-weighted average, actual exposures will at
times be considerably higher than 5 ppm.
Of the 20,000 some-odd chemicals, an
estimated per capita consumption of 4 lbs. per
year (Levantine and Almeyda, 1974), used in
this country to preserve, color, stabilize, flavor,
nutritionally enhance and otherwise modify
foods and medications, sulfites have been
considered among the safest. Sulfur dioxide and
sulfites are oxidized in the body to sulfate, which is
harmless, and excreted in the urine. It has
generally been believed that this detoxification
mechanism is adequate to handle the quantities
that are likely to be ingested, so that for non-
sensitive individuals, i.e. the majority of people,
sulfites are still considered safe. But are they?
It has long been known that the aged and
patients with bronchial asthma, chronic bronchitis
and degrees of heart failure may suffer fatal
consequences during periods of severe smog
when the concentration of atmospheric sulfur
dioxide is high. But even normal persons suffer
bronchospasm at 5 ppm SO
Reduced antibody formation was exhibited by
rabbits exposed 80 days, 9
hours a day to a
sulfur dioxide in air concentration of 36 mg/m
(Erban and Korinek, 1960). Since the
Occupational Safety and Health Administration
allows workers to be exposed year in and year
out to 10 mg/m
as a time-weighted average
(which seems uncomfortably close to the 36
over 80 days) what must be the
consequence to the immune system suffered by
industrial workers and urban dwellers due to
lower-level but chronic exposures?
Glucose tolerance tests have indicated
disturbed carbohydrate
metabolism in rabbits
exposed to 50 – 100 ppm for two hours each
day for up to six months (Sugawara, 1958). A
possible disturbance of protein metabolism was
also indicated in these rab-
bits. As far back as 1913, Rost and Franz
reported that ingestion of 1 g of sodium sulfite
per day decreased utilization of protein and fat in
humans. Such studies have apparently not been
repeated; hence we must question what the
biochemical technology for di
scerning more
subtle metabolic changes would reveal 70 years
later about the effects of chronic, albeit low-
level, exposure to sulfites. Sidorenkov (1957)
has reported that inhaled sulfur dioxide readily
penetrates into the blood stream from the
lungs; therefore adverse findings on inhaled
sulfur dioxide must carry over to ingested
sulfites. He also finds a marked alteration in
carbohydrate metabolism, perhaps due to the
destruction of thiol groups of biologically
active substances such as insulin. Reduction in
liver glycogenesis and an increase in protein
and non-protein nitrogen in the blood is also
Perhaps the heartburn or indigestion many of
us suffer after fancy wining and dining out may
not be mere gluttony (surely we’d eaten that
much at home before without consequence!)
but due rather to the 0.007 oz (200 mg) of
sulfite we may have ingested. 200 mg sulfite can
make almost anybody vomit, according
Lafontaine and Goblet (1955) who induced the
vomiting reflex in man consistently at such
doses. And there are known additive effects
when bisulfite is ingested together with other
chemicals such as benzoic acid (Prenner and
Stevens, 1976), another widely used
preservative which also occurs naturally in
some foods such as cranberries, cinammon
and cloves.
Possible Cause of Sulfite Sensitivity
possible explanation for sulfite sensitivity
might be the widespread molybdenum defi-
ciency which we find in a majority of our
patients (Pfeiffer, 1983; Sohler, 1983). Many
have no detectable blood molybdenum and
most have levels below 5 ppb (normal 10 to 100
ppb). Molybdenum is the trace element
contained in the enzyme sulfite oxidase which
detoxifies sulfite to the inert and harmless
Sulfite oxidase deficiency has been identified
since 1967 as a rare inborn error of
metabolism, and recent
ly a new inherited
disease due to deficiency of the “molybdenum
cofactor”, a constituent of the three
enzymes xanthine dehydrogenase, sulfite
oxidase and aldehyde oxidase, has been
recognized (Wadman et al., 1983). Neither of th
genetic diseases responds to molybdenum
supplementation, for here it
is either the enzyme
which is deficient or the metal in association with
another moiety which is
absent. Nonetheless,
part of the patients’ symptomatology is
considered due to high accumulated toxic sulfite
and insufficient sulfate. It is not inconceivable
that some of the same symptoms may be evoked
in normal individuals by simple molybdenum
deficiency in the face
of high environmental
sulfite. Indeed Abumrad et al. (1981) have
demonstrated that a mo
lybdenum deficient diet
would result in a sulfur handling defect at the level of
transformation of sulfite to sulfate.
Molybdenum is contained in legumes such as
soybeans, navy beans and lentils. This is gassy
peasant food, so in developed countries these
foods are avoided. Molybdenum is also available
in Health Food stores in supplements of 150 to
500 mcg. A useful supplement to prevent sulfite
effects would be 500 mcg AM and PM. In
addition to molybdenum, it would also be
prudent for the sulfite-sensitive individual, or for
that matter for any individual exposed to undue
quantities in foods, drugs or urban smog, to take
additional supplements of vitamin C and
thiamine, both known to be depleted by excessive
sulfiting agents. Perhaps some pantothenic acid,
found to have a significant protective action
against sulfur dioxide poisoning (Hoetzel, 1961)
would also be useful.
Sulfiting agents are now considered to be the
hidden trigger in up to five to ten percent of
asthmatics or almost one million Americans.
Though most cases of sulf
ite sensitivity occur in
asthmatics, an untold number of others may be
suffering as well. The FDA states that 30 percent
of reported cases occurred in non-asthmatics
with no known allergies.
In addition to this popular new issue of sulfite
sensitivity, which is the impetus for the FDA review
of sulfite status, we should perhaps consider
simple toxicity anew. In this era of the salad bar,
when vast amounts
are being dumped into restaurant foods, and as
sulfur dioxide in air ever increases, we may
already be approaching or exceeding
toxic levels. And we have very little knowledge
of the consequences of chronic low-level
exposure particularly to the stressed individual
with compromised detoxification mechanisms.
The mechanism of sulfite sensitivity remains
obscure, some subjects exhibiting positive
wheal and flare reactions to skin scratch tests
and others reacting only to oral provocative or
inhalation challenge. Even when sulfiting agents
are definitely implicated, much more needs to
be done to pin down the offending form or its
route of entry. Reactions to sulfur dioxide in
beverages, for example, occur so rapidly as to
rule out intestinal absorption. It may gain
access either by inhalation of the gas vaporizing
from the solution or by absorption from the
sublingual and the buccal mucosa. Reactions to
metabisulfite in foods may actually be due to the
liberation of SO
from acid foods.
Many patients previously thought to have
food allergies or drug se
nsitivities or symptoms
seemingly triggered by weather, exercise or
stress may actually have been reacting to sulfites.
Clinical appreciation of the presence of sulfite
sensitivity is not only inherently difficult even for
the astute diagnostician (Schwartz,
1983, states
that the differential diagnosis includes functional
bowel disease, anxiety, carcinoid and food
allergy), but the majority of doctors are still
ignorant of its very existence. It is therefore
imperative that the physician and layman alike
become enlightened on this subject and that
individuals experiencing any of the symptoms
listed above examine their habits and try to
ascertain whether sulfite might be the culprit.
Meanwhile, since we cannot totally manipulate
our environment, sulfite-sensitive individuals as
well as those suffering undue exposure would
do well to fortify their diet with foods rich in
molybdenum, vitamin C, thiamine and
pantothenic acid or to take appropriate
supplements. Sulfite sensitivity is difficult to
diagnose and might be much more common than
we suspect. We probably see but the tip of the
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About R-Sensitive Life

Sulfite and Preservative Sensitive individual, who ironed out all the kinks and bugs of Sulfite Sensitivity. Found solutions for this crazy condition. Back to leading a semi-normal life, and following an alternative healthy lifestyle.
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