Sulphites - Priority allergens

2017
Cat.: H164-156/8-2017E-PDF
ISBN: 978-0-660-09311-6
Pub.: 170202

Allergic reactions are adverse reactions that occur when the body’s immune system overreacts to a particular allergen. These reactions may be caused by food, insect stings, latex, medications and other substances. In Canada, the priority food allergens are peanuts, tree nuts (almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachio nuts and walnuts), sesame seeds, milk, eggs, fish, crustaceans and molluscs, soy, wheat or triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye grains), and mustard.

Sulphites (a food additive), which do not cause true allergic reactions, are generally grouped with the priority allergens because sulphite-sensitive individuals may react to sulphites with allergy-like symptoms. Those who have asthma are most at risk to sulphite sensitivity and other forms of sulphite reactions. There is no allergy testing available for sulphites.

What are the symptoms of an allergic or allergic-type reaction?

When someone comes in contact with a food allergen or added sulphites, the symptoms of an allergic or allergic-type reaction may develop quickly and rapidly progress from mild to severe. The most severe form of an allergic reaction is called anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis due to ingestion of sulphites has been described but is very rare. The most common adverse reactions for people with a sulphite sensitivity, which include wheezing, chest tightness and coughing, are estimated to affect approximately 5 to 10% of people with asthma. Symptoms are more likely to occur when asthma is poorly controlled. However, adverse reactions to sulphites can also occur when there is no preceding history of asthma. The most common symptoms include flushing, fast heartbeat, wheezing, hives, dizziness, stomach upset and diarrhoea, collapse, tingling or difficulty swallowing.

How are severe allergic reactions treated?

Currently there is no cure for food allergies. The only option for managing the risk is to completely avoid the specific allergen. Appropriate emergency treatment for anaphylaxis (a severe allergic reaction) includes an injection of epinephrine, which is available in an auto-injector device. Epinephrine is the only medication that can stop an allergic reaction from progressing and must be administered as soon as symptoms of a severe allergic reaction appear. Antihistamines, if used, should be given AFTER epinephrine has been administered. The injection must be followed by further treatment and observation in a hospital emergency room. If your allergist has diagnosed you with a food allergy and prescribed epinephrine, carry it with you all the time and know how to use it. Follow the advice of your allergist on how to use an auto-injector device.

Frequently asked questions about sulphite sensitivity

What are sulphites?

Sulphites are substances that naturally occur in some foods and the human body. They are also regulated food additives that are used as preservatives to maintain food colour and prolong shelf-life, prevent the growth of micro-organisms and to maintain the potency of certain medications. Sulphites are also used to bleach food starches (e.g., potato) and in the production of some food packaging materials (e.g., cellophane).

The sulphites that can be added to foods in Canada are potassium bisulphite, potassium metabisulphite, sodium bisulphite, sodium dithionite, sodium metabisulphite, sodium sulphite, sulphur dioxide and sulphurous acid. These can also be declared using the common names sulfites, sulphites, sulfiting agents or sulphiting agents.

Are sulphites safe to eat?

Yes, for the majority of consumers. However, some sulphite-sensitive people, many of whom also have asthma, may react to sulphites with allergy-like symptoms. Sulphites can trigger asthma and, in very rare cases, cause symptoms of anaphylaxis.

I have sulphite sensitivity (i.e., I experience symptoms with sulphite ingestion). How can I avoid a sulphite-related reaction?

  • Read food labels.

Avoid all food and products that contain sulphites and any product whose label carries a precautionary statement warning that the product might have sulphites in it such as “may contain” sulphites or similar wording. When provided by a manufacturer, precautionary statements are usually found after the list of ingredients or "Contains" statement if there is one.  By December 2021 any precautionary statements will have to appear in this location only.

If sulphites are part of the product formulation, they must be declared in the list of ingredients or in a separate “contains” statement immediately following the list of ingredients.  

  • Avoid any products that do not have an ingredient list. 
  • Read labels every time you shop. Manufacturers may occasionally change their recipes or use different ingredients for varieties of the same product.

What do I do if I am not sure whether a product contains sulphites?

If you have a sulphite sensitivity, do not eat, drink or use the product. Obtain ingredient information from the manufacturer.

Does product size affect the likelihood of an allergic reaction?

Product size does not affect the likelihood of a reaction; however, the same brand of product may be safe to consume for one product size but not another. This is because product formulation may vary between different product sizes of the same product or produced in a different facility. Always read the ingredient lists carefully.

Other names for sulphites

In the past, some products have used other names for sulphites on their labels. These names are not permitted without the common name of the sulphites also appearing on the label, based on the enhanced labelling requirements for food allergens, gluten sources and added sulphites.  However, if you have a sulphite sensitivity and see one of the following in the list of ingredients on a product you should not eat it.

E 220, E 221, E 222, E 223, E 224, E 225, E 226, E 227, E 228 (European names for the different types of sulphites)

Examples of foods and products that often contain sulphites

  • Alcoholic and non-alcoholic beer and cider
  • Bottled lemon and lime juices and concentrates
  • Canned and frozen fruits and vegetables
  • Cereal, cornmeal, cornstarch, crackers and muesli
  • Condiments, e.g., coleslaw, horseradish, ketchup, mustard, pickles, relish and sauerkraut
  • Dehydrated, mashed, peeled and pre-cut potatoes, and frozen French fries
  • Dried fruits and vegetables, such as apricots, coconut and raisins, mango, sweet potato
  • Dried herbs, spices and teas
  • Fresh grapes
  • Fruit fillings and syrups, gelatin, jams, jellies, preserves, marmalade, molasses and pectin
  • Fruit and vegetable juices
  • Glazed and confit (candied) fruits, e.g., maraschino cherries
  • Starches, (e.g., corn starch, potato starch)
  • Sugar syrups, e.g., glucose, glucose solids, syrup dextrose, corn syrup, table syrup
  • Tomato pastes, pulps and purees
  • Vinegar and wine vinegar
  • Wine

Avoid food and products that do not have an ingredient list and read labels every time you shop.

Other possible sources of sulphites

  • Baked goods, especially with dried fruits
  • Deli meats, hot dogs and sausages
  • Dressings, gravies, guacamole, sauces, soups and soup mixes
  • Fish, crustaceans and molluscs
  • Granola bars, especially with dried fruit
  • Noodle and rice mixes
  • Snack foods, e.g., raisins, fruit salad
  • Soy products

Non-food sources of sulphites

  • Bottle-sanitizing solutions for home brewing
  • Cellophane

Note: These lists are not complete and may change. Food and food products purchased from other countries, through mail-order or the Internet, are not always produced using the same manufacturing and labelling standards as in Canada.

What can I do?

Be informed

Consult your allergist or physician in order to obtain the advice and support needed to help manage your condition. Contact your allergy association for further information.

If you or anyone you know has food allergies or sulphite sensitivity and would like to receive information about food being recalled due to improper allergen labelling, sign up for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s (CFIA) e-mail “Food Recalls and Allergy Alerts” notification service available. When you sign up you will automatically receive timely food recall notifications.

Before eating

Allergists recommend that if you do not have your auto-injector device with you that you do not eat. If the label indicates that a product “contains” or “may contain” sulphites, do not eat it. If you do not recognize an ingredient, there is no ingredient list available or if you don't understand the language written on the packaging, avoid the product.

What is the Government of Canada doing about priority food allergen, gluten sources and added sulphites?

The Government of Canada is committed to providing Canadians with the information they need to make safe and healthy food choices. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and Health Canada work closely with municipal, provincial and territorial partners and industry to meet this goal.

The CFIA enforces Canada's labelling laws and works with associations, distributors, food manufacturers and importers to ensure complete and appropriate labelling of all foods. The CFIA recommends that food companies establish effective allergen controls to prevent the occurrence of undeclared allergens and cross-contamination. The CFIA has developed guidelines and tools to aid them in developing these controls. When the CFIA becomes aware of a potential hazard associated with a food, such as undeclared allergens, Health Canada is asked to assess the situation. When a serious risk is identified, the food product is recalled from the marketplace and a public warning is issued. The CFIA has also published several advisories to industry and consumers regarding allergens in food.

Health Canada has worked with the medical community, consumer associations, and the food industry to enhance labelling regulations for food allergens, gluten sources and added sulphites in pre-packaged food sold in Canada. Health Canada has amended the Food and Drug Regulations to require that the most common foods and food ingredients that may cause life-threatening or severe allergic reactions are always clearly identified by their common names on food labels allowing consumers to easily recognize them and make safe and informed food decisions.

More information on the regulations that enhance the labelling of food allergens, gluten sources and added sulphites can be found on the Health Canada website.

If you come across a food that you think is improperly labelled, contact the CFIA and provide information about the product.

Report a food safety or labelling concern.

Where can I get more information?

For more information on:

  • food allergies

visit Health Canada's website.

For information on:

  • subscribing to the “Food Recalls and Allergy Alerts” e-mail notification service

visit the CFIA website or call 1-800-442-2342/TTY 1-800-465-7735 (8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Eastern time, Monday to Friday).

For information on this and other Government of Canada programs and services call

  • 1-800-O-Canada (1-800-622-6232)
  • TTY 1-800-465-7735

Below are some organizations that can provide additional allergy information:

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