The “sulphur” in sulphured molasses is a good starting point for understanding several interesting aspects of food chemistry.
Sulphur is the old-fashioned spelling for sulfur, a yellow chemical element whose common compounds include sulfur dioxide and sulfites. Sulfur dioxide gas is the choking, acrid odor of burning sulfur and is reputed to pollute the atmosphere in Hell, probably because volcanoes belch sulfurous fumes from the nether regions of our planet.
Sulfites release sulfur dioxide gas in the presence of acids, so their action is the same as that of sulfur dioxide itself. Namely, they are bleaching agents and are anti-microbials. Both properties have been used in sugar refining.
Sulfur dioxide has been used to lighten the color of molasses, the dark, sweet byproduct of sugar refining, and to kill its molds and bacteria. The molasses is then said to be sulphured.
Virtually all molasses produced today is unsulphured, however. Sulphured molasses is not to be confused with Great-Grandma’s sulphur and molasses, a spring tonic that supposedly “purified the blood” after a hard, cold winter. She mixed a couple of teaspoons of gritty, powdered sulfur into some molasses and fed it to as many children as she could catch. The sulfur is harmless because it isn’t metabolized.
Sulfur dioxide gas is used to bleach cherries white, after which they are dyed a Disneyesque red or green, then flavored with oil of bitter almonds, packed in syrup, and christened maraschino, after the liqueur whose flavor these garish creations are striving to imitate.
Sulfites counteract oxidation. (Techspeak: sulfites are reducing agents.) “Oxidation” most commonly refers to the reaction of a substance with oxygen in the air, and it can be quite a destructive process. Witness the rusting of iron, a pure example of what oxidation can do, even to metals. In the kitchen, oxidation is one of the reactions that make fats turn rancid. Assisted by enzymes, oxidation is also what makes sliced potatoes, apples, and peaches turn brown. Dried fruits are therefore often treated with sulfur dioxide to keep that from happening.
But oxidation is a more general chemical process than the simple reaction of a substance with oxygen. To a chemist, oxidation is any reaction in which an electron is snatched away from an atom or molecule. The electron-deprived “snatchee” is said to have been oxidized.
In our bodies, such vital molecules as fats, proteins, and even DNA can be oxidized, making them unable to fulfill their critical jobs of carrying on our normal life processes. Electrons are what holds molecules together, and when an electron is snatched away, these “good” molecules can break down into smaller, “bad” molecules.
Among the most voracious electron snatchers are the so-called free radicals, atoms or molecules that desperately need another electron and will snatch one from almost anything it encounters. (Electrons like to exist in pairs, and a free radical is an atom or molecule that has an unpaired electron desperately seeking a partner.) Thus, free radicals can oxidize vital life molecules, slowing down the body, causing premature aging, and possibly even heart disease and cancer. The problem is that a certain number of free radicals occur naturally in the body from a variety of causes.
Antioxidants to the rescue! An antioxidant is an atom or molecule that can neutralize a free radical by giving it the electron it wants before it steals one from something vital.
Among the antioxidants we obtain from our foods are vitamins C and E, beta-carotene (which turns into vitamin A in the body), and those ten-syllable tongue-twisters you see on the labels of many fat-containing products to keep them from turning rancid by oxidation, butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT).
Back for a moment to sulfites. We should note that some people, especially asthmatics, are very sensitive to sulfites, which can cause headache, hives, dizziness, and difficulty in breathing within minutes of eating them. The FDA requires specific labeling of products that contain sulfites, and there are many, from beer and wine to baked goods, dried fruits, processed seafoods, syrups, and vinegars.
Search the labels for sulfur dioxide or any chemical whose name ends in-sulfite.