Sulfite Sensitivity and Coffee: What You Need to Know

Coffee Levels is reader-supported. When you buy via links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission at no cost to you. Learn more.

With foods manufacturers pumping out large quantities of edible items in one go, they take help from a chemical to prevent food from going stale and browning. This chemical additive is called sulfite. Whenever food or nutrition is being discussed on any platform, additives and preservatives are a pre-requisite debate.

With almost everybody relying on coffee, the production of coffee has also increased tenth fold in the last decade. With increased production comes the need for preservatives and sulfites.

Coffee is the most popular beverage around the globe dating back to the 9th century. I mean, I get it. It is a delicious cup of pick me up on a cold morning.

But does it contain sulfites?

Generally speaking, coffee is mostly sulfite-free. but there are coffees that contain sulfite either due to roasting or packaging.

It’s important to note that sulfur is different from sulfite! Sulfites are derived from sulfur but they have different chemical and physical make-up.

Does coffee contain sulfur?

Coffee contains several sulphuric compounds that contribute to its signature aroma and taste. The different amino acids in coffee beans also contain sulfur. Different roasting and processing methods can induce different reactions in the sulfur content, producing different tastes, odors, and aromas.

Keep on reading to understand better.

What Do Sulfites Do To Your Body?

Sulfites can have harmful effects for those who have sulfite sensitivity, and they can also trigger asthma. However, for most people, it’s safe.

Depending on the severity, sulfite exposure can lead to many mild or life-threatening reactions. Typically, if there is mild skin irritation, a topical medication can relieve it. But in cases where hives start to appear medical attention is required immediately.

Asthma is also triggered when exposed to this chemical. Its severity may vary from mild to serious asthma attacks. It can also cause, racing heartbeat, abdominal pain, low blood pressure, chronic fatigue, and flushing.

Also, in most cases, these reactions or symptoms can be controlled by proper medical attention. But it is rarely found that it can cause near-death conditions.

People who tend to have a sensitivity for sulfites should be very careful and should carry EpiPens with them at all times. They can try new foods but with a lot of precautions.

This video explains more about this.

Awesome video to spread sulfite allergy awareness

How Can I Have Sulfite-free Food?

You can have sulfite-free food and easily consume products that do not contain any amount of sulfites simply by reading your labels.

It is used as an additive in most processed foods for many purposes. So, always check the labels of all food packaging every time you buy stuff. This is a very easy way to avoid sulfite but only if you know what to look for.

If a food item contains sulfite, the ingredients list would have things like sulfur dioxide, potassium bisulfite, potassium metabisulfite, sodium bisulfite, sodium metabisulfite, and sodium sulfite.

As a little kick-starter try and avoid the foods listed below as they are high in sulfite with more than 100 ppm of sulfite:

  • Soup mixes or canned
  • Pickled foods  
  • Lemon juice concentrate
  • Candy
  • Gravies
  • Potato Chips
  • Beer and Wine
  • Baked goods
  • Shrimps
  • Trail mix

Does Coffee Contain Sulfites?

cup of coffee and spilled beans

Some coffees contain sulfites, but not naturally.

As I discussed above, sulfite occurs naturally in some foods. It is very common in plant-based items. Coffee is a plant-based product grown all over the world. Coffee protein contains sulfur due to the amino acid cysteine and methionine present.

This compound is necessary for the taste development and aroma of the beans.

Simply put, this sulfur is like the parent chemical. Sulfite is an oxy-ion compound of sulfur. This means given the right condition this sulfur turns into sulfite. Just how carbon given the right condition makes a diamond whereas in other cases it makes coal.  

An experiment was conducted on how sulfur is turned into sulfite.  In this, they conducted a series of tests to determine the conversion of sulfur to sulfite and the degree of occurrence.

Is Coffee High in Sulfites?

While there are coffees high in sulfites, most coffees are sulfite-free.

The raw form of coffee which is green beans do not contain sulfite. Whereas, the roasted coffee beans contain sulfur. This sulfur when broken down with oxygen makes sulfite.

You see, this process happens while roasting these raw beans.

Roasting the coffee beans does result in the making of sulfite inevitably, however, the degree or strength can vary. It all depends on the temperature, the time, the type of roasting, and the origin of the beans. All these factors combined play the role of forming sulfite.

To avoid sulfite-containing coffee, you should keep an eye for slow-roasted coffee beans that are not roasted at higher temperatures like Arabica beans. They do not have a strong flavor like Robusta and are not that acidic.

Does Starbucks Coffee Have Sulfites?

A number of Starbucks coffee contain sulfites, but not all of them do.

Starbucks being an all-over coffee shop does not have corporate policies regarding serving customers with food allergies. Starbucks baristas are not trained to accommodate any allergy persisting food item or cross-contact among allergen’s pieces of equipment.

So, you might want to be a bit careful before you sip any coffee or buy any treats from there. Since it is obvious that most coffees do have some amount of sulfite, here is a list of all the coffees and foods items at Starbucks indicating the allergens like Sulfites. nuts and milk.

To name a few sulfite-free options for coffee are Mocha with soy milk, Strawberry Frappuccino, and Café Latte.

Does Instant Coffee Have Sulfite?

coffee surrounded by jars of instant coffee

Instant coffee has sulfites, but only to a certain degree.

Our first cup of coffee usually comes from the Nescafe Instant Coffee jar, right?

So, basically, instant coffee is an easy way of making a fresh brew at home. They are dried coffee bean extracts that are brewed in high concentrations. Then, these are ground up and packaged.

We all are familiar with instant coffee. Instant coffee chemistry does have several sulfur compounds like sulfite. But it is weakened in the process of making it soluble. Determined by what flavor profile is desired in the final product, sulfur compounds like 4-methoxy and 2-methyl butane are added to enhance the aroma and taste.

This increases the overall aroma and flavor profile of the instant coffee powder. Even flavoring like hazelnut or cinnamon is also added in this stage of processing.

Does Decaf Coffee Contain Sulfites?

Decaf coffee contains sulfites but in most cases gets flushed out while brewing.

Decaffeinated coffee is useful for people who are looking to cut down their intake of caffeine.  People tend to avoid caffeine if they are facing health issues. With less than 3% of caffeine being present in the decaf coffee beans, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that there is a very minute amount of sulfur or sulfur compounds present.

The decaf coffee is made by a decaffeination process taking place on green coffee beans.  This simply drains out the caffeine and all chemicals present in the bean, making it flat and weak. Now since sulfur is responsible for the aroma and flavor, the quantity of sulfite is decreased greatly resulting in an aroma-less and flavor-less bean.

Below are the top 5 decaf coffee beans brand that you can buy along with the caffeine amount present in them. But make sure to check the label for sulfite.

Decaf Coffee BrandsType of RoastAmount of Caffeine
LifeBoost Organic DecafMedium0%
Koa Coffee Swiss Water Decafe Whole BeanMedium0%
Koffee Kult Colombian DecafMedium0.1%
Kicking Horse Coffee DecafDark0%
No Fun Jo DecafeDark0%

Coffee Without Sulfites

For the most part, you can find coffee without sulfites in it. It might be a bit overwhelming at first, but once you find the coffee that works for you and is according to your needs, it shouldn’t be a problem.  Here are some of the sulfite-free coffee options:

  1. Keurig K-cups: These are tea or coffee pods used to make coffee quickly in the morning. They are circular cartridges filled with ground coffee, they are filtered, and then sealed with tin foil to lock in the aroma. They are a great way to avoid sulfites in your coffee.  
  2. Unflavored coffee beans: Most coffee beans that do not have added flavors are sulfite free. As sulfite is responsible for the taste, its absence results in a less aromatic coffee.
  3. Decaf coffee beans: You can easily get freshly roasted decaf coffee beans from the grocery store or any local roasters. By decaffeinating the coffee bean it reduces the chemical compounds to less than zero making it sulphate free.

Also, one thing to keep in mind is that most manufacturers in the U.S are not liable to add the label “sulfate-free” on the bags of coffees if the amount is less than 0.001% 10 parts per million. So, if the sulfite content is higher than 0.001%, they will only mention it on their labels.

Final Thoughts

Our ever-growing food industry needs to cater to the soaring demands. Therefore products are mass-produced and need to be safeguarded for long-term use. With the aid of sulfites, this is possible.

Sulfites are present in almost every food. It is a substance that occurs naturally or is added to preserve food. Most people are not threatened by this additive, but allergic people or asthma patients are at a higher risk of severe reactions. It is a little hard to avoid almost every sulfite-containing food product but slowly you can adapt to it.

It’s best to try and avoid eating completely new foods which might contain sulfite if you are allergic to it. Also, maintain a journal noting down everything you have eaten in a day to watch if any reaction flares up.