What are sulfates and sulfites?

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A look at sulfates and sulfites and how they affect everyday life

Sulfates and sulfites are chemicals that may sound similar, yet in reality they are two different compounds. 

Sulfites are used in food to help preserve them for longer periods of time.  As is the case, they can be a true problem for those suffering from asthma.  Those who are allergic to sulfites can have life-threatening reactions to products containing the chemical. 

Sulfates, on the other hand, are mineral salts which contain sulfur, found after the decay of plants, animals, and certain industrial or household wastes.  Below, we'll delve a little bit deeper into the similarities and differences between the two chemicals. 

What are Sulfites?

Sulfites are an additive found in a variety of foods and drugs.  It is a common addition to such foods as avocado dip, beer, wine, dried fruits, shrimp, peeled potatoes, cider, and many more foods.  They may also occur naturally in asparagus, corn starch, eggs, garlic, lettuce, tomatoes, soy, onions, and more.  Sulfites are added into foods (and drinks) in order to help combat spoilage by halting the growth of bacteria and mold.  It can also be used to stop discoloring of fruits and vegetables, as well as added to certain medications to maintain their strength and effectiveness over time.   

Sulfites, unfortunately, are linked to both asthma and food allergies.  They can cause an adverse reaction that can be life-threatening.  Around 5 to 10 percent of people suffering from asthma are also allergic to sulfites.  Due to federal law guidelines, those foods with sulfites added in must include sulfites in the ingredients list.  Sulfites also cannot be added to raw foods, like vegetables and fruits. 

Fortunately, your doctor can test you for a sulfite allergy.  It's called a controlled sulfite challenge and is done under the supervision of the doctor where they test a person's reaction to small amounts of sulfites.  Asthmatics found to have a sulfite allergy must be very careful to avoid them altogether.  This, unfortunately, is quite difficult as they are in many foods and beverages we consume.  But, there are ways to be safe, avoiding sulfite containing products, and living a healthy and full life.  Simply read the labels on your favorite foods and ask a waiter or manager about sulfites in their food preparation.  Also, make sure your asthma drugs do not contain sulfites. 

If you have signs of an anaphylactic episode due to a sulfite induced asthma attack, seek help immediately.  Try using your quick-relief inhaler, as it has shown to be effective in helping to control anaphylactic reactions. 

What are Sulfates?

Sulfates are different in nature than the above mentioned sulfites.  Sulfates are actually mineral salts which contain sulfur.  The process of decaying plants, animals, and industrial wastes help to produce these salts in our environment.  Steel mills, pulp mills, mines, tanneries, and other such institutions expel sulfates into the air, water, and land.  For our purposes, sulfites are also sulfur containing chemicals, but they are simply used as food preservatives.  Thus, sulfates and sulfites are not the same. 

The industrial/household runoff of waste can intermix sulfates into waterways such as rivers, streams, and lakes.  Sulfates can seep into soil and cause a variety of problems, a main one being contamination of our groundwater.  In terms of drinking water, there may be traces of sulfates.  According to one national survey, the average parts per million was around 46. 

Sulfates can also be present within the air we breathe, near areas of heavy industry use.  It can irritate eyes and may cause lung irritation.  For someone drinking water with more than 500 parts per million, diarrhea and intestinal pain may occur after drinking the tainted water. 

Thus, there can be problems associated with both chemicals.  For allergy and asthma sufferers, sulfites can be a tricky thing to deal with.  Fortunately, there are ways to cope.  Plan, be smart, and prepare for the worst case scenario.  If you do those things, you'll be able to live a good and full life.


WebMD:  Asthma and Sulfite Allergies.

Wisconsin Department of Health Services:  Sulfates.

Above photo attributed to Cordey

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