The scientific world refers to sodium bisulfite, also known as sodium hydrogen sulfite, with the chemical formula NaHSO3. This chemical compound is produced by mixing sulfur dioxide and sodium carbonate. Although classified and used as a food additive, generally recognized as safe by the The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the safety of sodium bisulfite remains a topic of concern.
Food and Drug Administration
The FDA does set limitations on the use of sodium bisulfite. It cannot be used in meat or in foods recognized as sources of vitamin B1 because the sulfite destroys the vitamin. Common food sources of vitamin B1, also called thiamine, include whole-grain foods, beans, nuts and lean meats. In addition, the FDA prohibits the use of sodium bisulfite in fresh fruits and vegetables sold and intended to be served raw.
Winemakers use sodium bisulfite to preserve the flavor of the wine and prevent oxidation -- a reaction that occurs in the presence of oxygen. Although many commercial winemakers use a similar chemical, sodium metabisulfite, many home winemakers still use sodium bisulfite. The sodium bisulfite releases sulfur dioxide gas in the presence of water, killing bacteria, yeast and fungi in the wine. After ensuring that your grape juice contains no unwanted bugs, add yeast and allow the juice to ferment into wine. You may add more sodium bisulfite to the wine during the bottling process to prevent the growth of bacteria that can turn your wine to vinegar.
Sulfites in Wine
Many people complain that drinking wine gives them a headache or makes them feel flushed. Some people who suffer from asthma say drinking wine triggers an asthma attack, and they theorize that the sulfites in the wine cause the reaction. Research published in “Thorax: An International Journal of Respiratory Medicine” notes that only a small number of wine-sensitive asthmatic patients responded to the sulfites in wine in the laboratory setting. The level of sulfites in the wine makes a difference, but the average sulfite content of wines, 80 milligrams/liter, falls well below the level of 300 milligrams/liter that triggered a reaction in patients.
Sodium bisulfite prevents oxidation of food, which means that it prevents browning and the deterioration of nutrients like vitamin C. This function makes sodium bisulfite desirable to use on fresh vegetables and fruits on a salad bar, keeping them looking fresh all day. However, using too much can trigger a reaction in some people. Although sodium bisulfite is safe for most people, it can cause adverse symptoms -- including hives, nausea and difficulty breathing -- when consumed in large amounts if you are sensitive to sulfites.
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