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The chances are good that if you’re reading this, you are an analytical chemist or somehow connected to the food science sector. Maybe you have had the lucky experience of measuring sulfite (SO32-) before in the laboratory. I certainly have, and the adventure regarding tedious sample preparation and proper measurement of such a finicky analyte still haunts me today, years later.

Why sulfite?

Sulfite is a preservative added to a vast range of foods and beverages to prevent browning or oxidation. Some individuals are sensitive to sulfite additives and may experience a range of allergic reactions. Therefore, both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and European Union (EU) laws require that the presence of sulfites be declared on food labels when the concentration exceeds 10 mg/L.

To put this into perspective, an Olympic size swimming pool can hold about 2,500,000 liters, meaning anything beyond 25 kilograms (the average mass of one young child!) would need to be reported.

So, which foods contain sulfite?

Many foods and beverages contain sulfite – whether added to prolong the freshness, or occurring naturally as a byproduct from processes like fermentation. Typically, the first things that come to mind are wine, beer, or dried fruit snacks. However, many pickled and otherwise preserved items such as sauerkraut, canned fruits and vegetables, and even frozen foods contain significant levels of sulfites. Processed meats, several condiments, and some prepared doughs are also high on the list of offenders, so beware at your next picnic!

If you think you may be sensitive to sulfites, don’t forget to check the nutrition facts, and try to avoid such foodstuffs.

How is sulfite usually measured?

Several analytical methods exist to measure sulfite in food and beverages, however they suffer from repeatability issues, and can be quite cumbersome to perform.

Traditionally, the optimized Monier-Williams (OMW) AOAC Official Method 990.28 was used for quantification of sulfite in most foodstuffs, but the method detection limit now lies at the regulatory labeling threshold. Automated discrete analysis methods have been reported for sulfite analysis, but they are limited by their strong dependence on sample matrix type. Therefore these methods are less than ideal for laboratories where sulfite analysis is required for a wide variety of food and beverage products.

Methods based on ion chromatography (IC) with conductivity detection exhibit a lack of selectivity combined with an extended analysis time due to separation challenges. A newer method developed by AOAC (Method 990.31) focuses on the use of ion-exclusion chromatography followed by electrochemical (amperometric) detection of samples.

Another issue arises concerning the sensitivity of the detector. After a few injections, fouling from contaminants rapidly decreases the electrode sensitivity. Frequent reconditioning of the working electrode is necessary due to a rising background and baseline noise, and can be accomplished in a couple of ways. Manual polishing and utilizing pulsed amperometric detection (PAD) pulse sequences are the most common choices to recondition the surface of the working electrode, while other methods opt for disposable electrodes to avoid this step altogether.

What has improved?

Metrohm has filed a patent for an innovative, fast, and accurate ion chromatographic (IC) method based on direct current (DC) mode electrochemical detection. It works with the implementation of a unique working electrode conditioning function (patent pending) in the newest version of chromatographic software (MagIC Net 3.3) offered by Metrohm. A great diversity of food and beverage products were analyzed with sulfite recovery values near 100% in all cases. Using a single, robust chromatographic method, any sample can be treated identically, saving time and making laboratory work much easier.

Sample of garlic analyzed for sulfite content (spiked: red, unspiked: black). Recovery was calculated at 100%.
(Click to enlarge)

No matter what type of sample (solid, liquid), the preparation steps are nearly identical, and much simpler to perform than ever before. Additionally, the retention time of sulfite in the method does not shift. This saves even more time for analysts as they do not have to reprocess data. Since the electrode is automatically reconditioned after each analysis, results are both reliable and reproducible. Waste from disposable electrodes is reduced, as well as costs incurred by the materials and excess working hours which would generally be spent performing other manual steps. This is truly a win-win situation for food analysis!

Benefits to QC laboratories and beyond

In real terms, this improved method allows for up to 10x the throughput of samples compared to conventional methods. Previously, the contract laboratories involved in this study could measure 5 samples, with 2 analysts per 8-hour shift (15 samples per 24 hours, if you like). With our patent-pending technique, at 10 minutes per sample, including fully automatic regeneration of the electrode surface, this allows for up to 144 samples to be analyzed every day.

Whether you work in the food and beverage industry, wastewater analysis, or in daily analytical laboratory work, you can appreciate the numerous benefits this method offers. Robustness, reproducibility, time savings, cost savings, and a simpler procedure for sample preparation across the board – are you interested? With our expertise in ion chromatography as well as electrochemistry, among other techniques, Metrohm is able to offer such cutting edge methods for the most challenging applications.

Want to learn more?

Download our free Application Note:

Sulfite determination in food and beverages applying amperometric detection

Post written by Dr. Alyson Lanciki, Scientific Editor at Metrohm International Headquarters, Herisau, Switzerland.

Special thanks are given to Miguel Espinosa, Product Manager Ion Chromatography, at Metrohm Hispania (Madrid, Spain) for his assistance in providing the laboratory data for the study.

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