Sulfur is one of the major elements in the atmosphere (
It’s all around you, including in the soil your food grows in, making it an integral part of many foods.
Your body uses sulfur for various important functions, including building and repairing DNA, as well as protecting your cells against damage. Thus, including enough sulfur-rich foods in your diet is vital for your health (
Yet, some people report feeling better when eliminating or drastically reducing sulfur-rich foods from their diet.
This article reviews the latest evidence on whether foods with sulfur are beneficial or should be avoided.
Sulfur plays an important role in crucial functions in your body, such as making protein, regulating gene expression, building and repairing DNA, and helping your body metabolize food (
Sulfur also helps maintain the integrity of connective tissues, such as your skin, tendons, and ligaments (
Many foods and beverages — even drinking water from certain origins — naturally contain sulfur. Some medications and supplements, including certain antibiotics, analgesics, and joint pain remedies, contain varying levels of this mineral as well (
Sulfur is a mineral that your body uses for various functions, including making and repairing DNA. Many foods and beverages, as well as some drinking water, medications, and supplements, contain sulfur.
- Meat and poultry: especially beef, ham, chicken, duck, turkey, and organ meats like heart and liver
- Fish and seafood: most types of fish, as well as shrimp, scallops, mussels, and prawns
- Legumes: especially soybeans, black beans, kidney beans, split peas, and white beans
- Nuts and seeds: especially almonds, Brazil nuts, peanuts, walnuts, and pumpkin and sesame seeds
- Eggs and dairy: whole eggs, cheddar, Parmesan and gorgonzola cheese, and cow’s milk
- Dried fruit: especially dried peaches, apricots, sultanas, and figs
- Certain vegetables: particularly asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, red cabbage, leeks, onion, radishes, turnip tops, and watercress
- Certain grains: especially pearl barley, oats, wheat, and flour made from these grains
- Certain beverages: particularly beer, cider, wine, coconut milk, and grape and tomato juice
- Condiments and spices: especially horseradish, mustard, marmite, curry powder, and ground ginger
Drinking water can also contain significant amounts of sulfur depending on where you live. This may be especially true if you source your water from a well (5).
Moreover, sulfites — a food preservative derived from sulfur — are commonly added to packaged foods like jams, pickles, and dried fruit to extend their shelf life. Sulfites can also develop naturally in fermented foods and beverages including beer, wine, and cider (5).
Sulfur is naturally found in a variety of foods and beverages. Sulfur-derived sulfite is another form of sulfur commonly added to some packaged foods.
While following a diet containing enough sulfur is vital for your health, too much of this mineral may cause a few unpleasant side effects.
Drinking water containing high levels of sulfur may cause loose stools and diarrhea. Excessive amounts of this mineral in your water can also give it an unpleasant taste and make it smell like rotten eggs. You can test the sulfur content of your water by using sulfur sticks (5).
On the other hand, there’s currently no strong evidence that eating large amounts of sulfur-rich foods has the same laxative effect.
A sulfur-rich diet may worsen symptoms in those with ulcerative colitis (UC) or Chron’s disease (CD) — two inflammatory bowel diseases that cause chronic inflammation and ulcers in the gut.
Emerging research suggests that sulfur-rich foods may help a specific type of sulfate-reducing bacteria (SRB) thrive in your gut. These bacteria release sulfide, a compound thought to break down the gut barrier, causing damage and inflammation (
That said, not all sulfur-rich foods may have the same effect. For instance, while a diet rich in sulfur-containing animal products and low in fiber may raise SRB levels, one rich in sulfur-containing vegetables appears to have the opposite effect (
Moreover, many factors other than the sulfur content of foods may influence the balance of gut bacteria. Therefore, more research is needed before strong conclusions can be made.
Drinking water with high levels of sulfur may cause diarrhea. People with CD and UC may benefit from limiting the amount of certain sulfur-rich foods in their diet, but more research is needed.
Anecdotally, some people report feeling better when following a low sulfur diet. However, there’s currently limited research on sulfur intolerance.
Instead, most studies focus on the side effects of sulfites — a preservative derived from sulfur that’s added to some alcoholic beverages and packaged foods to prevent spoilage and extend shelf life.
Around 1% of people appear to have a sulfite sensitivity that causes itching, hives, swelling, nausea, or asthma-like symptoms when exposed to foods rich in sulfites. In extreme cases, exposure may even cause seizures or anaphylactic shock (
People sensitive to sulfites benefit from avoiding foods that contain them. However, there’s currently little evidence to suggest that they also benefit from limiting sulfur-rich foods.
If you’re sensitive to sulfites, make sure to check food labels and avoid ingredients like sodium sulfite, sodium bisulfite, sodium metabisulfite, sulfur dioxide, potassium bisulfite, and potassium metabisulfite (
Some people are sensitive to sulfites, a sulfur-derived preservative added to some alcoholic beverages and packaged foods. As such, they should avoid sulfite-rich foods. However, there’s little evidence that they should avoid sulfur-rich foods as well.
Despite the potential drawbacks of getting too much sulfur, it’s important to include this nutrient in your diet.
In addition, sulfur-rich foods are often rich in a variety of other nutrients and beneficial plant compounds. Cutting these foods out of your diet may make it more difficult to meet your daily nutrient needs.
What’s more, certain sulfur-rich foods, such as garlic and cruciferous vegetables, may even help protect against diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, as well as age-related losses of brain function (
Thus, limiting your intake of these foods too drastically is not recommended, unless it’s truly needed.
If you suspect sulfur-rich foods to be a cause of bowel discomfort, consider seeking guidance from a registered dietitian to ensure that your low sulfur diet continues to meet your daily nutrient needs.
Certain sulfur-rich foods may protect against certain diseases. Foods rich in sulfur also tend to be rich in a variety of other nutrients, and eating too little of these foods can make it difficult to meet your nutrient needs.
Sulfur is a mineral involved in many important processes in your body, including the making and repairing of DNA. Therefore, eating enough sulfur-rich foods is essential for your health.
That said, drinking water containing too much of the mineral might cause loose stools and diarrhea. What’s more, a diet rich in sulfur may potentially worsen symptoms in people with certain inflammatory bowel diseases.
Remember that most sulfur-rich foods also contain a variety of other beneficial nutrients. Those who suspect sulfur-rich foods to contribute to bowel discomfort may want to speak to a dietitian to ensure that their diet continues to meet their daily nutrient needs.