Sulphites are common preservatives found in food and drink, but for a significant number of people, they can induce headaches and other adverse reactions. Migraine sufferer? Sulphites may be a trigger so let's delve deeper into the science behind sulphites, their potential effects on your body, and strategies to minimise exposure.
I recently discussed sulphites with a client who was wondering why her "healthy snacks" were triggering migraines. Sulphites are a group of sulphur-based compounds used as preservatives to prevent browning and inhibit bacterial growth in food and beverages. So far, so good, but around 1 in 100 people are sensitive or allergic to sulphites. And if you have asthma you are more likely to be susceptible.
Symptoms can vary and also range from mild to severe, but you may be having a sulphite reaction if you suffer from headaches, shortness of breath, rashes or digestive issues after consuming sulphite-rich food.
The Science Behind Sulphites and Headaches
There is a lot of research stacking up that has found sulphites can trigger headaches and migraines in some people. Most people are absolutely fine consuming a sensible amount of sulphites, but if you are sulphite-sensitive, sulphites can cause blood vessels in the brain to constrict and then dilate, leading to a headache. Your immune system perceives sulphites as a threat and releases histamine and other chemicals into the bloodstream to combat them, leading to inflammation that can trigger a headache.
Sulphites: More Common Than You Think
Originally, sulphites were thought to affect only a small percentage of the population, but as they have become more prevalent in the Western diet, more research has been carried out. A study in 1984 found that over 65% of asthmatic children were sensitive to sulphites. By 1999, the World Health Organization revised their estimate of sulphite-sensitive asthmatic children from 4% to 20-30%.
If you are asthmatic, sulphites consumption needs to be explored, but migraine sufferers are also more likely to be afflicted with sulphite sensitivity.
Recognising Sulphites in Your Food
Sulphites are often disguised in ingredient lists under different names and numbers, including:
220 – Sulphur dioxide
221 – Sodium sulphite
222 – Sodium bisulphite
223 – Sodium metabisulphite
224 – Potassium metabisulphite
225 – Potassium sulphite
228 – Potassium bisulphite
Like most processed foods, the transparency and naming of ingredients containing sulphites aren't great. Feel free to check out Food Labelling Deciphered, one of my on-demand courses, to help build your knowledge in this area.
Common Sources of Sulphites
Sulphites are found in numerous foods and drinks, but common culprits include dried fruit, deli meats, sausages, jams, cordials, pickled foods, and wine (red, white and rose although you can buy sulphite-free brands).
Minimising Your Sulphite Exposure
Whether it's pickles, deli meats or dried fruit that trigger a reaction (it was dried fruit for my client), here are some strategies to minimise your sulphite exposure:
Choose organic or preservative-free wines. If they are sulphite-free, they will make a point of telling you.
Use a dehydrator to dry your own fruit/meat if you eat a lot of them.
Opt for organic, preservative-free, or sun-dried fruit. It might not look as pretty (check out natural dried apricots), but if it triggers a migraine, it's not worth it.
Read labels of packaged products and avoid anything with the numbers 220-228. Prepackaged deli meats should definitely warrant some caution.
Struggling With Sulphites?
While sulphites are widespread in our food supply, understanding them and their potential effects on our health allows us to make informed choices about what we consume. For most of us, sulphites are fine in moderation, but if you are an asthma or migraine sufferer, it's time to reduce or eliminate them. Be mindful of your diet and try adjusting your sulphite level to minimise your sulphite exposure and potentially reduce the frequency of your headaches or other adverse reactions.