Certain sulphur compounds are some of the oldest and most widespread food preservatives. They are used as antioxidant agents and to avoid the growth of moulds and bacteria and may be found in many foods and beverages, especially in wine, seafood and processed meat products. But also in many others, such as dried fruits and vegetables, or juices, potato crisps, biscuits and sauces.
Sulphites are preservatives that are safe for most consumers but potentially dangerous for some people who are sensitive to them, especially if they suffer from asthma. Approximately one in ten asthmatics may present an asthma attack ten to 20 minutes after eating food containing sulphites. Although in the great majority of cases the reaction is moderate and there are no other symptoms, it is recommended that they avoid food and beverages containing this preservative. This is why it is important for food labels to contain information about the presence of sulphites. The codes go from E-220 to E-228. This information, however, does not appear in every product that contains this preservative.
Different researchers have warned of the increase in sulphite use as a preservative and colour protector, because in some cases it is used in quantities over the permitted limit. For example, one third of the seafood tested usually shows levels that are higher, sometimes very much higher, than those allowed under Spanish regulations. It is used to avoid a characteristic problem in the conservation of this type of food: blackened heads. This problem used to be avoided by using boric acid, which was banned due to being carcinogenic.
Since sulphites are added to crustaceans by sprinkling or immersion the dosage is not precise and the maximum allowed level is easily exceeded. On the other hand, if the amount added is adjusted to the minimum, the heads turn black.
Some studies indicate that shrimp containing the sulphite level allowed by legislation would be considerably affected and consequently consumers would reject it. People criticize that the maximum limit was established before enough research was carried out. Health authorities could be forced to revise the allowed limit for sulphites or to look for an alternative to their use.
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