Sulfite occurs naturally in our bodies as well as in foods such as apples, rice, onions, and cabbage, and in beverages such as wine. Sulfites are added as preservatives and antioxidants (for example, to prevent browning) to a range of foodstuffs including dried fruit and vegetables, potato-based products, beer and malt beverages, wine, and fruit juices. They may also be used to halt ongoing fermentation during the winemaking process.
Dr. Maged Younes, Chair of EFSA’s Panel on Food Additives and Flavourings, said: “The available toxicity data was insufficient for us to derive an Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) level. Instead, we calculated margins of exposure (MOE) considering dietary intakes and the dose associated with neurotoxic effects in animal tests.”
The MOE is a ratio between the lowest estimated dose at which an adverse effect is observed and the level of exposure to the substance. In the case of sulfites, a ratio below 80 could indicate a safety concern.
EXPOSURE FOR HIGH CONSUMERS
Dr. Matthew Wright, Chair of EFSA’s working group on sulfur dioxide-sulfites, said: “The MOEs we calculated were below 80 for high consumers in all population groups except for adolescents. This means that estimated intakes for these consumers potentially exceed what would be considered safe, by up to 12.5% for children (3-10-year-olds) and up to 60% for adults.”
The Panel found evidence of adverse health effects on the central nervous system such as a delayed response of nerve cells to stimuli, an early sign of nervous system dysfunction. EFSA’s scientists also restated their previous recommendation to further investigate hypersensitivity or intolerance among some sensitive consumers due to knowledge gaps.
BACKGROUND TO THE UPDATED OPINION
In 2016, EFSA re-assessed the safety of sulfites as part of the re-evaluation program for food additives authorized in the EU before 20 January 2009. At the time, the Panel set a temporary group ADI of 0.7 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day pending the availability of new data required for concluding their safety.
Although the European Commission launched a call for data to address the uncertainties described in EFSA’s previous re-evaluation, the information provided by the industry and available in the open literature were insufficient to establish an ADI.