are the “freshest”-looking foods making you sick?
It would be hard to argue the appeal of a crisp, bright salad with colors that pop right off the plate as apposed to one that looks a bit less vibrant, but you might be inclined to choose the latter if you understood all that goes into that “fresh” presentation. Some restaurants will use a sulfite spray over the salad bars and in the prep kitchen to keep that shiny new sheen on their food so that it appears fresh and appetizing. But at what cost to our health?
Sulfites have been used by farms and food institutions for decades as an inorganic chemical preservative, not only of fruits and vegetables, but of proteins and even in prescription medications. Specifically, sulfites are used on fruits and vegetable to prevent unpleasant browning, on shrimp and lobster to prevent melanosis, or “black spot”, in wines to discourage bacterial growth, in dough as a conditioner, and to bleach certain food starches and cherries. In addition, sulfites are used in pharmaceuticals to maintain the stability and potency of some medications (Knodel, 1997; Papazian, 1996).
There has been great debate and legal battle between consumers, the FDA, and the agricultural lobbyists about sulfite safety and regulation. In 1987, the FDA proposed to revoke the GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) status of sulfiting agents on fresh potatoes intended to be cooked and served unpackaged and unlabeled to consumers and issued a final ruling to this effect in 1990. However, the rule was held null and void in 1990 after a protracted court battle in which the potato industry prevailed on procedural grounds (Papazian, 1996). According to the current regulations, a company or restaurant does not have to make the consumer aware that they use sulfites as a preservative unless they add more than an FDA approved amount (i.e. no signage or asterisk on the menu like how they are now doing for *Gluten Free).
Many people have now developed sulfite sensitivities that manifest in a number of ways. These potentially toxic and harmful substances can cause nausea or diarrhea and precipitate asthma attacks in sensitive individuals, as well as cause nasal and sinus congestion, rhinitis, postnasal drip, frontal headache, and bronchospasms. A person can develop sulfite sensitivity at any point in life.
What can we do about it? Find out if your favorite restaurants are using sulfites as preservatives. Ask a manager, as the wait staff will likely not know the answer. If they are, order something other than that “healthy” salad. Beware of sulfites in packaged foods and become a savvy label reader. The key words to look for are sulfur dioxide, sodium sulfate, sodium and potassium bisulfites, and metabisulfites, all of which are sulfating agents. If nothing else, just help to educate those around you and become more aware yourself.
We all like a beautiful presentation on a plate and it sure is convenient for our produce to last the whole week without any signs of aging, but the truth is, it’s just not natural. Even though I am a self-admitted foodie, the point of food is to nourish our bodies by giving us the micronutrients we need, not to look pretty on a plate.