EUROPE – In their latest assessment of sulfur dioxide (E220) and sulfites, the experts at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) have concluded that dietary intakes of sulfites could pose a safety risk for high users of food products containing the additives (E221-228).

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.

The extent of some adverse health effects could not be confirmed due to gaps in the toxicity data.

Sulfite is a substance that exists naturally in our bodies as well as in several foods and drinks, including apples, rice, onions, and cabbage.

They can be added as preservatives and antioxidants to various foods, including dried fruit and vegetables, potato-based products, beer and malt beverages, wine, and fruit juices. They can also be used to prevent browning.

Additionally, they can be employed to stop ongoing fermentation when making wine.

As part of the re-evaluation program for food additives approved in the EU before 20 January 2009, EFSA reevaluated the safety of sulfites in 2016.

At the time, the Panel established a group ADI of 0.7 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day, awaiting the accessibility of fresh information needed to draw firm conclusions about their safety.

The information provided by industry and made publicly available in the literature was not enough to establish an ADI, despite the European Commission having issued a call for data to resolve the uncertainties mentioned in the earlier re-evaluation by EFSA.

“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.

“An ADI is a threshold below which we know the daily intake is safe. When there is evidence of harmful effects but not enough for us to confirm how much is safe, the MOE tells us if current intakes are likely to be harmful,” said Dr. Maged Younes, Chair of EFSA’s Panel on Food Additives and Flavourings.

The MOE is a ratio between the lowest estimated dose at which an adverse effect is observed and the substance’s exposure level. In the case of sulfites, a ratio below 80 could indicate a safety concern.

“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,” Dr. Matthew Wright, Chair of EFSA’s working group on sulfur dioxide-sulfites, said.

The scientists at EFSA also reiterated their earlier recommendation to look into some sensitive consumers’ hypersensitivity or intolerance in more detail due to knowledge limitations.

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