The Sweet Tooth

Have you ever seen a dried apricot that was not preserved with sulfur dioxide? They are stiff, brown and unappealing even though they don’t taste as bad as they look. Such unsulfured dried fruits, as they are called, are available in specialty stores (like Trader Joe’s near my house) for those of us that can’t tolerate sulfur preservatives. Mainstream stores only carry dried fruits treated with sulfur dioxide gas: apricots, peaches, pears, figs and apples. Watch out; they can knock you right onto your rear. Dates and prunes are not preserved with sulfur. Coconut is always sulfited unless you crack it open yourself and dig it out of the shell. Sulfited coconut may be shredded, flaked or powered and is used in candies, cookies, cakes and Pina Colada cocktails. Lemons and limes are difficult to categorize. Fresh lemons and limes contain no sulfites and they do a good job of preventing scurvy if you are considering a long ocean voyage. When converted to an oil or flavor, both are still OK. But when bottled as a concentrate, they are heavily preserved with sodium bisulfite to prevent browning. Whenever I see lemon juice concentrate in a salad dressing, I avoid it.

Candy AppleSugar comes in many forms: cane and beet, white and brown, granulated and powdered. When cane sugar is refined (C&H Cane Sugar, for instance), syrup is pressed from raw cane and cooked. Granulated sugar crystallizes from the melt. As the melt ages, it darkens until unsulfured molasses results. Sugar crystallized from a tan melt is called light brown while sugar from an older melt is called dark brown. All of these granulated cane sugars are low in sulfites, way under 1 ppm. Powdered sugar is finely ground and mixed with a small amount of cornstarch which adds slightly to the sulfite level. Beet sugar (Holly, Diamond, etc.) goes through similar processing steps but is lightly bleached with sulfur dioxide to whiten the final product. Coating white beet sugar with cane molasses creates most brown beet sugars. American beet sugars have effective sulfur oxide levels just a little higher than cane. However, European beet sugar is much worse and can be as high as 4 ppm. For home use, I buy cane sugar to minimize my intake of sulfur. But when calculating sulfur levels in food, I usually don’t worry about sugar so long as it is not European beet sugar.

Unsulfured molasses created by the cane process is quite low in sulfites. Unfortunately, other forms like blackstrap are sulfured and can have levels near 100 ppm. Most food labels don’t specify whether molasses is sulfured or not so you must assume the worst. Breakfast syrups aren’t as bad as sulfured molasses but you still have to be careful. Syrups are universally made with corn syrup, lots of it. And some are even darkened with sulfited caramel color. I usually use honey because bees don’t like sulfur either.

I know what you are thinking, you are going to avoid all the sugar problems by using artificial sweeteners. There are no sulfites in sucralose or aspartame and you’ll lose weight to boot. Nice try. Since artificial sweeteners are so intense, you only need a smidgen and smidgens are hard to measure. So, the yellow and blue envelopes of Splenda and Equal were invented. They contain a breath of artificial sweetener and about 1 gram of dextrose and maltodextrin. This makes the packets as bad as refined corn…because they are refined corn. Do you ever have the feeling someone is out to get you? Just to put nails in your coffin, remember that the low calorie sweeteners like sorbitol, manitol and xylitol are actually made from corn starch and have effective sulfur oxide ratings equivalent to corn syrup.

You need to compose yourself and even sit down before I give you the next bit of news. Chocolate hides a Brimstone Demon. It is not added by man; mother nature is to blame. And, depending on the form of chocolate, the effective sulfur oxide content can be quite high. All chocolate starts out as a cocoa bean from which a liqueur is extracted. The chocolate liqueur is formed into Box of Chocolatestwo groups called cakes. From the first group, an oil called cocoa butter is removed and added to the second group. The cakes without oil are dried and become cocoa powder. The cakes with added oil are melted and become baking chocolate. To make semi-sweet chocolate, you mix approximately equal parts sugar and baking chocolate. To make milk chocolate, you add milk, vanilla and other treats to semi-sweet chocolate. Now you know everything my encyclopedia knows about chocolate.

The Chocolate Table below lists the five basic types of chocolate and groups them into two sulfur groups. It also tells something about the fat, protein and carbohydrate content that can help you figure chocolate weight from the data on a food label.  Note that baking chocolate is about 1/2 cocoa and 1/2 cocoa butter.

Chocolate Table

Chocolate Code SOx
Fat Pro
Carb Serving SOx ug
Cocoa COA 5.0 ppm 14 % 20% 54 % 1 Tbs (5g) 25 ug
Cocoa butter COB 5.0 100 0 0 1 Tbs (14g) 70
Baking choc COB 5.0 55
10 28 1 Oz  (28g) 140
Semi-sweet COC 2.5 30 4 63 2 Tbs (21g) 52
Milk choc. COC 2.5 34 4 60 2 Tbs (21g) 52 

NutsSulfites are just one of chocolate’s problems. Many people are allergic or sensitive to chocolate for other reasons. So, maybe that’s why white chocolate was invented. Inexpensive white chocolate contains absolutely no chocolate and might be a good substitute for the real thing. However, more expensive white chocolates do contain some cocoa butter, so watch out. Also, beware of other ingredients often mixed with chocolate: peanuts, for instance. Peanuts contain natural oxides of sulfur at a modest level of 1 ppm. That’s not much unless you’re at a ball game and have several bags. Don’t despair, other nuts are less of a problem.

A word of caution: not everyone with a sulfite intolerance is as sensitive as I am. For instance, if you can handle a few sips of wine, a couple of hundred micrograms of sulfur dioxide in chocolate will not hurt you. Estimate your personal tolerance and make food choices to stay under that limit. Don't be overly cautious or fearful. With a little knowledge, you are in control.

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