We were having a glass of French wine over dinner one night, when a light bulb went on in my head. That was it! The unusual taste and smell fruits and vegetables had taken on in recent months – it was Sulfur. Could it be why almost everyone we know has had a respiratory infection two or three times since January, not to mention the more recent Mexican flu pandemic? We check everything we buy, eat mostly certified organic, and do pHx™ daily, so I haven’t been sick. Still, I’m getting really tired of meals tainted with a Sulfur-like odor. While cruciferous vegetables contain Sulfur naturally (and usually taste and smell normal), upsetting our natural Sulfur balance daily via ingestion of additives and atmospheric pollutants not only impacts viral resistance, it pre-disposes us to DNA damage.
I first noticed the odd odor in Jan/Feb in a sealed bag of certified organic Romaine lettuce from a U.S. grower. When I returned it to the retailer, they said the strange smell was due to wet weather in growing regions – extra fumigation or flushing was being done to extend shelf life. I contacted the U.S. grower who wrote back saying they do fumigate their Romaine lettuce post-harvest, but only with nitrogen gas. That was odd… because nitrogen gas doesn’t have a smell, it’s odorless. Fumigation with nitrogen gas is legal during storage of both organic and non-organic produce. Although it’s an inert (non-reactive) gas, nitrogen displaces oxygen, so inhaling nitrogen gas fumigants can be lethal – which may explain why nitrogen storage handlers haven’t detected the Sulfur.
The smelly bag of fresh Romaine from a trusted grower was my first clue. In the following weeks fresh produce, both local and imported, started taking on a similar smell and taste. At first I thought the retailer was doing extra fumigation, and adding sulfur dioxide. Or perhaps distributors under contract from growers had produce building up in their warehouses (conventional food handlers who didn’t traditionally have the same commitment to certified organic, now carry it). It just didn’t add up, however… limiting our supply of clean unadulterated food is a violation of human rights (a fast track to enslavement that weakens will power). Organic growers and retailers have a vested interest in adhering to the Organic Certification Standards, which ensure our food remains clean of chemicals from farm to palate (in Canada the code will become legal text June 30th, 2009*).
No… it’s happening on much too wide a scale for all these separate businesses to be breaking the Organic Standards, deliberately. The contamination has to be linked to a single source, post-harvest… somehow Sulfur compounds must be getting into food-grade nitrogen fumigants before being sold by the manufacturer, and the produce handlers are not aware of it. In other words, they think they’re being sold a nitrogen fumigant as per the label, when in fact it’s a mix of nitrogen gas and Sulfur. (Canadian Organic Standards do not allow Sulphur application of any sort post-harvest processing, handling or sanitation*.) This may be happening on purpose (without telling anyone), or it may be a manufacturing accident, there’s no way to be certain at this point. At any rate current Sulfur levels in our food supply have the potential to poison not only our bodies but the reputation of the organic industry.
Why is fresh produce, the very root of immune health, being tampered with to the point you can taste and smell the chemicals? Why, all of a sudden, the weak link in the certified organic food chain? Why so widespread? I’ve detected the sulfuric acidity in fresh produce as well as grains, beans, and flour, any natural plant-base product – it’s ending up in our spices, herbs, and vitamin supplements, even water bottles can be fumigated. Whatever that odor is, to be good to eat food, like water, should taste and smell like nothing except itself. I’ve noticed the sulfur penetrates deeper into produce with longer storage, and smells stronger as temperature of food rises. The smell is especially bad around restaurants lately when food is being cooked (whereas it’s usually mouth-watering). Fumigation with Sulfur was outlawed on restaurant salad bars quite a few years ago after the tragic death of 12 people.
With the recession, although fumigation and flushing with nitrogen gas is no doubt at an all time high, the Sulfur odor is not really noticeable to most people (you get used to it and don’t smell it after a while). Plus, chemical companies also have devised compounds to mask the Sulfur, somewhat. To find out what is in the nitrogen fumigants we will need to set aside the skepticism that rendeers us naively unresponsive, and test fresh produce for contamination. Fresh produce throughout North America needs to be tested regularly to determine if it’s contaminant free. And whoever is responsible (knowingly or unknowingly) for mixing sulfur with food-grade nitrogen or using sulfur on pre and post-harvest produce, although they may consider themselves employers looking for cost-effective solutions, needs to become transparent…
*IMPORTANT NOTICE: Who would have never guessed that the Canadian Organic Standards had provided growers with a loophole by which to add Sulfur to our fresh produce. Elemental sulfur has been allowed on plants during the blossoming and leafing stage of growth, which is fair enough, except that it includes anytime up till harvest. I don’t see the difference between applying additives to fresh produce immediately before, immediately after harvest, or at the salad bar, do you?
July 29th, 2009 email from PACS Certification Committee to Suzanna:
Hello Suzanna:There is no issue. Sulphur is allowed. The field recommendations for this year are that if there is evidence of mildew on leaves a grower can continue spraying up to harvest. Sulphur is also applied for ridding of mildew on crops.The PACS Certification Committee
Authors reply to above email:Thank you for clarifying this point… with this awareness I will be able to start the process of sourcing fresh produce which has not been treated with sulfur, since I am sensitive to it as many people are (overexposure can lead to sensitivity)….
The following article on the hazards of food sulfur is re-printed from Time Magazine
Tossing Sulfites Out of Salads
Crisp green lettuce. Pulpy red tomatoes. Moist orange melons. The heaping displays at salad bars in supermarkets and restaurants across the nation are as appealing to the eye as they are tempting to the palate. For many people, building a salad to order is a bountiful, healthful new ritual. But for some there is a hidden canker. To keep fruits and vegetables tantalizingly fresh, produce has often been sprayed or dipped in sulfite solutions that prevent wilting and discoloration. Sulfites were long considered safe, but in recent years their skyrocketing use has brought disturbing reports. At least twelve deaths have been linked to sulfites since 1982. An additional 850 people have reported allergy-like reactions to the chemicals, 80% after eating sulfite- laced fruits and vegetables at salad bars and restaurants.
This fall, after almost three years of study, the Food and Drug Administration will impose a ban on the use of six sulfite preservatives in fresh produce. Not waiting for the ban, many supermarkets and restaurants have already stopped using the substances, sometimes substituting diluted citric acid or lemon juice. “The ban is a step in the right direction,” Attorney Mitchell Zeller of the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest concedes. “But the public is by no means protected.” About 7 million lbs. of sulfites are now used in the U.S. each year, on far more than fresh produce. Vintners rely upon sulfites to arrest fermentation and block the growth of bacteria in wine. They are routinely added to make cake and cookie mixes less sticky and to preserve canned and frozen vegetables, dried fruits, instant mashed-potato mixes, breads, salad dressings, fruit juices and soft drinks.
Consumers wishing to avoid the chemicals in such products have a tough time. Sulfites added as preservatives must be listed on packaged foods, but that does not guarantee the information is complete. Supermarket stickers traditionally do not acknowledge the chemicals’ use in processing shrimp and other shellfish. Wine labels do not note sulfites either. People dining out also have trouble getting guidance. Restaurateurs say that much of the food they serve is processed elsewhere, and suppliers’ assurances that a preparation is sulfite free can be faulty.
For most people, the chemicals pose no danger. Still, a sizable number are apparently sensitive to sulfites. Their reactions range from hives, nausea, diarrhea and shortness of breath to shock, coma and brain damage, as well as death. Asthmatics appear to be at greatest risk. The FDA estimates that 450,000 asthma sufferers, or 5%, are sulfite sensitive. For many, suggests Immunologist Ronald Simon of the Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation in La Jolla, Calif., the problem stems from sulfur dioxide, which is released by the sulfite solution. The fumes cause spasms in the bronchial tubes, preventing oxygen from getting into the lungs and blood. Notes Dr. Simon: “Asthmatics are exquisitely sensitive to sulfur dioxide.”