Sulfites inhibit the growth of four species of beneficial gut bacteria at concentrations regarded as safe for food

PLoS One. 2017 Oct 18;12(10):e0186629. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0186629. eCollection 2017.


Sulfites and other preservatives are considered food additives to limit bacterial contamination, and are generally regarded as safe for consumption by governmental regulatory agencies at concentrations up to 5000 parts per million (ppm). Consumption of bactericidal and bacteriostatic drugs have been shown to damage beneficial bacteria in the human gut and this damage has been associated with several diseases. In the present study, bactericidal and bacteriostatic effects of two common food preservatives, sodium bisulfite and sodium sulfite, were tested on four known beneficial bacterial species common as probiotics and members of the human gut microbiota. Lactobacillus species casei, plantarum and rhamnosus, and Streptococcus thermophilus were grown under optimal environmental conditions to achieve early log phase at start of experiments. Bacterial cultures were challenged with sulfite concentrations ranging between 10 and 3780 ppm for six hours. To establish a control, a culture of each species was inoculated into media containing no sulfite preservative. By two hours of exposure, a substantial decrease (or no increase) of cell numbers (based on OD600 readings) were observed for all bacteria types, in concentrations of sulfites between 250-500 ppm, compared to cells in sulfite free media. Further testing using serial dilution and drop plates identified bactericidal effects in concentrations ranging between 1000-3780 ppm on all the Lactobacillus species by 4 hours of exposure and bactericidal effects on S. thermophilus in 2000ppm NaHSO3 after 6 hours of exposure.

MeSH terms

  • Bacteria / drug effects
  • Bacteria / growth & development*
  • Colony Count, Microbial
  • Food Safety*
  • Gastrointestinal Microbiome / drug effects*
  • Inhibitory Concentration 50
  • Microbial Viability / drug effects
  • Species Specificity
  • Sulfites / pharmacology*


  • Sulfites
  • sodium bisulfite
  • sodium sulfite