Sulphites are additives that have been used for many years in food preservation, sometimes they are even found naturally in food. In this new blog post we will explain many aspects related to sulphites such as their functions in food as additives, the way they can affect the consumer and the requirements for use and labelling according to official regulations. Keep reading and learn more about it!

What are sulphites?

To answer our first question about what sulphites are, sulphites and their by-products are chemical forms obtained from sulphur that are used as additives for the preservation of many foods. It is easy to identify them on the labelling of any product since the EU recognises 8 types of sulphites in food as additives. The EU assigns an E number to each one of them therefore approving their use.

What is the role of sulphites in food?

Sulphites are added to foodstuffs with the aim of boosting their preservation and maintaining their colour, achieving in some cases a bacteriostatic effect at high doses and avoiding the negative consequences of microbial growth and the oxidation process.

Typical foodstuffs with sulphites as additives are the following:

  • Wines, grape juices, ciders and vinegars to prevent the development of moulds, bacteria and yeasts.
  • Crustaceans so that they do not darken during selling and cause consumer rejection.
  • Meat preparations, such as fresh sausages and burger meat, which need to be kept fresh and pink in colour.
  • Dried fruits, sauces, canned vegetables…

Therefore, the ultimate goal of sulphites in food would be to improve its appearance and enhance its shelf life. At Amerex we have no doubt that the results in colour terms are unbeatable thanks to its reducing power, as well as providing certain organoleptic properties. However this may lead to misleading results in the final product with a high microbiological contamination even though it has an attractive colour.

How are sulphites in food labelled?

Products containing more than 10 mg/Kg or 10 mg/L of sulphites must show this concentration on food labels. For example, in meat preparations the limit is 450 mg/Kg according to legislation, a dosage capable of giving the colour but which is far from the traditionally used dosages that allow a higher antimicrobial effect.

The labelling of sulphites in food consist on the name of their chemical formula and a number between E220 and E228:

  • E220 for sulphur dioxide.
  • E221 for sodium sulphite.
  • E222 for sodium acid sulphite.
  • E223 for sodium metabisulphite (sodium disulphite).
  • E224 for potassium metabisulphite (potassium disulphite)
  • E226 for calcium sulphite
  • E227 for calcium acid sulphite (calcium bisulphite)
  • E228 for potassium acid sulphite (potassium bisulphite).
  • E228 para el sulfito ácido de potasio (Bisulfito potásico).
Longaniza fresca con sulfitos

What are the side effects of consuming foods with traces of sulphites in people who are sensitive to them?

Perhaps the most important reason for labelling sulphites in food is that they can cause health problems in people who are sensitive to these substances.

Normally, foods containing sulphites do not pose a health risk, nor are they carcinogenic or teratogenic to the population. The amounts in which sulphites are present in food are well below the maximum permitted by law and are fully controlled.  Therefore, they meet the requirements of any food additive.

However, the metabolisation of sulphites in food can have negative consequences for people who are sensitive to these substances. There is an enzyme responsible for metabolising sulphites in food in the human body, the sulphite oxidase. In people with deficient enzyme activity, this process can lead to negative reactions. Therefore, the only way to avoid this is by not consuming foods containing certain sulphites.

People sensitive to sulphites in food develop reactions such as digestive problems, skin reactions, itching, and respiratory disorders such as asthma, coughing, shortness of breath or wheezing.

About 3% of adults and 6% of children have a food intolerance due to the presence of allergens and sulphites in food. There are 14 allergens that the European legislation requires to be compulsorily reported on food labels, including sulphites if they are in amounts greater than 10 mg/Kg or 10 mg/L, labelled as sulphite or sulphur dioxide.

Effect of sulphites on product labelling

As we mentioned before, the law allows the formulation of products to contain sulphites and other ingredients. Depending on it the products will be labelled one way or another.

In meat in general the use of sulphites is not permitted, but when Regulation (EC) No. 1333/2008 appeared, they wanted to maintain the figures of longaniza or burger meat in order to be used in markets that had traditionally used sulphites, such as English and Spanish markets.

Currently, these designations are used in the market for all types of meat preparations that take advantage of this legal loophole, even if they are not exactly longaniza or burger meat. In the Spanish market, the colour of products such as hamburgers is often associated with the intense red colour given by sulphite, letting go of the traditional organoleptic characteristics of a hamburger. Nevertheless, consumer habits are beginning to change.

To clarify, sausages cannot legally contain sulphites and/or colourings, but longanizas can contain a regulated amount of sulphites. The same applies to hamburger or burger meat, the former does not contain sulphites and the latter does. This is a labelling issue that protects the consumer; if the product is labelled as a sausage instead of longaniza, or as a hamburger instead of burger meat, the consumer can already distinguish which one contains sulphites and/or colourings and which one does not, because as at first glance they may appear to be the same product.

What natural preservative alternatives exist for the use of sulphites in food?

Amerex manufactures allergen and sulphite-free microbiological blends as an alternative to improve the safety and shelf life of a wide range of products such as longanizas and burger meat. Biamex and Safemix are our biotechnological blends that improve the contamination and spoilage performance of these fresh foods over chemical additive options such as sulphite.

Hamburguesa sin sulfitos

The biggest challenge is maintaining the colour, and currently we can reach more than 10 days of shelf life with the natural colour of the hamburger as the first day it was made. To restrain oxidation, we use our Amexol plant extracts and European circular economy funding projects in which we use agricultural by-products to obtain innovative polyphenols that help us in this task.

Where can I get a natural preservative alternative to sulphite?

At Amerex we can help you achieve a result that exceeds expectations so you can replace this additive with clean label alternatives.

We are at your disposal for a safer and more natural manufacturing.

Contact us if you want to know more!

Phone number: +34 91 845 42 14

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