Knowing the Demons

Sodium sulfites and sulfur dioxide are the big guns of the Brimstone Demon family. When you see their names on a food label, bow your head, take a few steps backward and run away. But as a very irritating friend of mine says, "You must know by now that life is not that easy." When sulfur works its way into a food as a part of the production process, the label need not mention sulfites. So, we need to identify all of the ingredients that do contain dangerous oxides of sulfur but don’t announce it. For clarity, they can be divided into groups and we will discuss each group in turn. But first, let’s look at a table of all of these ingredients so we can see where we are heading.

Oxides of Sulfur Ingredient Table

Group Name Code Makeup % SOx ppm
Corn Corn Starch, unmodified STU 88% starch 20 ppm
  Corn Starch, modified STM 90% starch 19
  Maltodextrin (polydex) MAL 90% starch 18
  Corn Syrup or Glucose CSG 80% sugar 13
  Corn Syrup Solids CSS 96% sugar 14
  Dextrose DEX 92% sugar 12
  Fructose FRU 99% sugar 1.0
  High Fructose Syrup HFS 76% sugar 1.3
Grape Market grapes GRP 16% sugar 5
  Grape Juice Con GRC 60% sugar 8
  White Grape Juice GRX 60 % sugar 80
  Raisins or Raisin Paste RSN 74% sugar 12
  Wine WIN 90% water 50
  Wine Vinegar WIV 94% water 40
Potato Dehydrated Potato PTD 74% starch 70
  Frozen Potato (fries) PTF 21% starch 13
  Potato Starch PST 90% starch 4
  Potato Flour PFL 80% starch 40
Protein Gelatin GEL 85% protein 45
  Shrimp or Crab SHP 20% protein 16
  Pizza, cheese topping PZA 70% crust 5.5
  Eggs EGG 12% protein 1.0
  Cheese, mild CHM, etc. See "Protein" 2.0
Fruit Fruit, dried and sulfured FTS 56% sugar 220
  Coconut, dry/shredded CNT 50% sugar 145
  Lemon Juice Con LJC 92% water 154
  Apple Cider Vinegar ACV 94% water 10
Sweets Cane Sugar SGC 100% sugar 0.6
  Powdered Sugar SGP 97% sugar 1.5
  Molasses, sulfured MOL 69% sugar 90
  Peanuts PNT 25% protein 1.1
  Chocolate, cocoa COA, etc. See "Sweet" 5
Caramel * See "Color Caramel" CCB, etc. See "Color" 0.2 - 12

The table is grouped naturally into food groups helping to make things easier to remember. The "Names" in the table appear as food ingredients on nutrition labels. The "Code" for each name is a capitalized triplet of letters that I use as shorthand for the ingredient. "Makeup %" indicates whether the food is a sugar, starch or protein and gives you a clue where to look on the nutrition label to find the weight of the ingredient. Lastly, the "SOx" concentration in ppm is given. For most of the ingredients, the ppm concentration is based only on the weight of the ingredient. But for caramel colors, the concentration is marked with a star (*) and is based on the total weight of the food that is colored. This is a more useful number for caramel colors since so little is needed to color a food.

ColaLet’s use the table to figure the sulfites in a can of cola. If you look at the nutrition label, you will see that a typical can contains 355 ml. The "ml" stands for milliliter (here we go again) and a milliliter of just about any liquid weighs a gram. So, a can of cola weighs 355 grams. From the list of ingredients on the cola label, you will find caramel color near the top. Our code name for the type of caramel used to color liquids is CCL and it has an SOx concentration of 0.34 based on the total weight of the cola. Multiply 355 times 0.34 and you get caramel color SOx. The nutrition label will also give the sugar weight to be around 40 grams. (Cola is mostly water, of course.) From reading the ingredient list on the label, the sweetener will most likely be high fructose corn syrup. This syrup has a code name HFS and an SOx concentration of 1.3 ppm based on the weight of the syrup. Multiply 40 times 1.3 and you get corn syrup SOx.

        121 ug SOx     Caramel Color (CCL): 355 x 0.34
        +52 ug SOx     High Fructose S (HFS): 40 x 1.3
        173 ug SOx     Effective Sulfur Oxide in a cola

I can’t drink a can of cola without a problem. I don’t even do well with a can of diet cola. But most folks are not as sensitive as I and would not develop a problem from a single can. Of course, the super-size, big-gulp colas they serve in convenience stores are much larger than a can. So, for these gargantuan drinks, you have to double the above numbers.

For those of us with a sensitivity (not an allergy), headaches and asthma are triggered by actual amounts of effective sulfur oxide which we conveniently measure in micrograms (ug). The concentration of the oxides of sulfur in a food or beverage is important only as a means to calculating this amount. A highly concentrated sulfite in a small bite is no more dangerous than a mild concentration in a larger bite. What’s important is the amount. In the cola example, the sulfur concentration of diluted caramel color is quite low, only 1/3 ppm. But when you multiply the concentration by the full weight of the beverage, you calculate an effective sulfur oxide weight that is large enough to be of concern. For people with true allergies that trigger the immune system, the situation is more complicated and both concentration levels and amounts are of importance.

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