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Food Additive Spotlight - Calcium Sulphite

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Is it a preservative or a bleaching agent? A disinfectant or a firming agent? Unfortunately, calcium sulphite, in various processed forms, is all of these things. In a nutshell, calcium sulphite (also sulfite), is a white powdery substance that forms sulphurous acid in acidic conditions and calcium sulphate when it reacts with oxygen. It is used as a bleaching and preserving additive in a wide variety of foods and due to the calcium content, it is also used to increase firmness in many canned foods.

Until the mid-80s, sulphites were widely used across the U.S. and around the globe. For the most part, they were considered safe, that is, until the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) discovered six scientific studies proving that sulphites may provoke allergic reactions, sometimes severe, in asthmatics and those suffering from allergies. During this time, the CSPI, along with the FDA, also reported at least a dozen deaths linked to sulphites, with the possibility of more. This forced the FDA to place a partial ban on sulphites around 1985/1986. In addition, the FDA required that all foods containing sulphites must include the preservative on the label.

While the use of calcium sulphite is now banned completely in Australia and many other countries, in the United States, the partial ban only covers meats and fresh fruit and vegetables.

In addition, because calcium sulphite (and sulphites overall) destroy thiamine (vitamin B1), an essential nutrient, the FDA has also banned the use of sulfites in foods that are significant sources of vitamin B1. These foods include: beans, sunflower seeds and flour, to name a few.

Calcium sulphite may still be used as a preservative in all types of processed foods including processed meat, seafood, breads, wine, beer and dried fruits and according to conflicting reports, even fresh-cut potatoes. Calcium sulphite may also be used in prepared salads, prepared fruit salads and in fruit and vegetable products such as beverages and sauces.

This multi-tasking substance is also used in the chemical manufacture of wood pulp—for papermaking and as a disinfectant in food preparation.

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), the CSPI and many consumer groups, calcium sulphite should be avoided at all costs. Avoidance is a must for asthmatics and those suffering from cardio-vascular or respiratory problems, emphysema and allergies. If you don’t suffer from allergies, but you notice any of the following symptoms after a meal, you may be sensitive or allergic to calcium sulphite. Symptoms include: dizziness, flushing, shortness of breath or wheezing.

Short of avoiding all prepared or processed foods, the best way to avoid products that contain sulphites/calcium sulphite is to become a serious label detective. It’s well worth it to take the extra time out to read the labels in order to protect your health.