Sulfured versus Unsulfured Herbs

Sulfur Dioxide:

Sulfites are widely used in dried fruits and wine. Dried apples and apricots are typically packaged with 500 to 1,000 ppm (parts per million) of the substance. While both of the above industries are required to disclose sulfur content, the herb industry is not. In fact, herb distributors who consider their herbs completely natural may be unaware of the high amounts of sulfur used to whiten their herbs during processing and then preserve them.


Sulfite sensitivity has also been found to develop in non-allergenic persons over time. No one knows what triggers onset or the mechanism by which reactions occur. Doctors believe some asthmatics develop difficulty breathing by inhaling sulfite fumes from treated foods. Asthmatics who have more severe symptoms and must use corticosteroids are especially prone to sulfite sensitivity and are most at risk of severe reactions. It is unknown whether asthma causes sulfite sensitivity or vice versa, as some individual’s first experience with asthma is a sulfite reaction.

One out of every twelve people is slightly allergic and may suffer breathing problems, hives or other effects after consuming sulfite products. The FDA says about one million people in the United States alone are considered extremely allergic. These persons react to minute levels and tend to suffer more acute symptoms.

Environmental effects:

The effects of the sulfuring process on the health of workers is a grave concern, as are the impacts to the environment.

For the workers: Inhalation of sulfur dioxide fumes burns the lungs. some cumulative and immediate health impacts are respiratory failure or death.

For the planet: When sulfur dioxide comes into contact with water, a variety of sulfurous acid salts form (sulfurous acid, bisulfite Ions and sulfite Ions). In nature, these acid salts are formed when erupting volcanoes spew sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere and come into contact with moisture and clouds. This contributes to the formation of acid rain- one of the most destructive forms of pollution in our environment. Even though the sulfuring process in herbs is small in scale in relation to volcanoes, it remains a relentless on-going process.

TCM perspective:

How sulfur affects taste and medicinal quality:

Unknown to most herb suppliers, manufacturers, and practitioners, sulfured herbs may also change the herbs energetic nature and can affect the efficacy of a formula. Technically, according to the traditional Chinese herbal sources, the medicinal properties of sulfur are sour, hot, and toxic. Medicinal plants which should be sweet become sour when treated with sulfur dioxide. As taste is an important indicator of function in Chinese medicine, there is a potential for sulfur dioxide to compromise the intended action of the herbal ingredients. the hot, toxic nature of sulfur also raises questions regarding its use and effects within medicinal formulations. In addition, sulfur’s sour taste make the herb’s taste even less palatable for your patients, making compliance more difficult.

Traditional uses for sulfur:

• fumigation

• prevents mold and insect infestation

• brightens color of fruits and herbs, whitens

• antimicrobial that inhibits yeasts, molds, bacteria growth

• slows rate of rancidity by slowing oxidation of fats and lipids

• blocks the natural ripening and enzymatic processes that continue to occur in foodstuffs after harvest.

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  1. This is so interesting. I had no idea that sulfites could be a cause of asthma or that they could make Chinese herbs taste worse! Does anyone know if the herbs in our school herbroom are sufured?

    Comment by Katrina H — August 3, 2013 @ 6:20 pm

  2. If herbs don’t have to be marked as being treated with sulfur, how do we know? Also, since it is used to preserve the herbs, does the price raise considerably for herbs that are not treated?

    Comment by Kim O'Berry — August 7, 2013 @ 1:37 pm

  3. Herbs that are sulfur-treated look more beautiful and often have better color. You can get sulfur-free herbs if you order at Springwind or Mayway.

    Comment by Lana — August 8, 2013 @ 3:36 pm

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