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Sulfur Rich Foods: Benefits and Best Sources

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Written by
Medically reviewed by
Dr. Alex Keller, ND

Updated: July 28, 2020

Did you know that sulfur is the third most abundant mineral in the human body? (19) Sulfur assists in numerous bodily functions, including building and repairing DNA, as well as protecting cells from damage. (13) Emerging research has identified several health benefits of consuming sulfur-rich foods, including a reduced risk of developing certain chronic health conditions. Continue reading to learn more about what foods are high in sulfur and the benefits of eating sulfur-rich foods.

What is sulfur?

Sulfur is an essential mineral, meaning the body can’t make it on its own and we must consume it through our diets. Thankfully, sulfur is available in a wide variety of foods. (19) It is supplied by inorganic sulfates in drinking water and sulfur-containing compounds in foods, known as organosulfur compounds. (7)

There are two primary amino acids found in foods considered to be organosulfur compounds – cysteine and methionine. While methionine is an essential amino acid, cysteine can be synthesized by the body, making it non-essential. However, dietary sulfur is necessary for the production of cysteine. (19) These amino acids and other organosulfur compounds can be found in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, nuts, and legumes, as well as several animal-based foods, including meat, seafood, poultry, and eggs. (19)

Sulfur has long been used for several therapeutic applications in medicine. As a natural anti-microbial, sulfur is an effective treatment for certain dermatological conditions, such as acne, dandruff, rosacea, and warts. (12) Sulfur is also used in the metabolism of certain medications, including antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and anticonvulsant drugs. (25)

While there is no recommended daily allowance (RDA) for sulfur, the health benefits of sulfur are clear, and eating sulfur foods is the best way to ensure you’re consuming adequate amounts through your diet.

Allium vegetables, such as garlic, leeks, onion, are among the best sulfur food sources.

Top 7 sulfur food sources

Sulfur is found in many plant- and animal-based foods. Eating a balanced diet incorporating a variety of foods can help ensure you’re getting enough sulfur. (19)

  1. Allium vegetables: garlic, leeks, onions, scallions, and shallots
  2. Cruciferous vegetables: arugula, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, and radishes
  3. Eggs
  4. Legumes: chickpeas, faba beans (broad beans), kidney beans, lentils, and peas
  5. Meat and seafood: chicken, crab, lobster, scallops, and organ meats
  6. Dairy products: milk, yogurt, parmesan cheese, and cheddar cheese
  7. Nuts and seeds: almonds, brazil nuts, walnuts, sesame seeds, and sunflower seeds (15)(7)(11)(3)(1)
mother and daughter making eggs in kitchen

Eggs are among the highest dietary sources of sulfur, with meat, poultry, and fish also providing large amounts.

Health benefits of sulfur

Growing evidence suggests that consuming sulfur compounds found in many foods and supplements may have anti-inflammatory effects and reduce your risk of developing certain chronic conditions. (21)(7)

Reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease

The primary sulfur-containing compounds in cruciferous vegetables, known as glucosinolates, may contribute to lower incidences of cardiovascular disease. (8)(7) One study demonstrated a positive correlation between the consumption of cruciferous vegetables and lower incidences of cardiovascular disease and cardiovascular disease-related mortality. This protective effect is believed to be due in part to their glucosinolate content. (24)

Did you know?
Steaming broccoli for one to three minutes helps maximize the bioavailability of sulfur-containing compounds. (22)

May reduce joint and muscle pain

Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) is a sulfur-containing compound found in plant- and animal-based foods and certain dietary supplements. Research has demonstrated that MSM may reduce inflammation and decrease joint and muscle pain. (6)(18) A randomized, double-blind study found that individuals with osteoarthritis-associated knee pain experienced a reduction in pain and had improved joint function following 12 weeks of MSM supplementation, administered twice daily. (16) However, research investigating the pain-relieving effects of dietary MSM is limited.

Broccoli and cauliflower in a white dish on a table

Broccoli and cauliflower are rich in sulfur-containing compounds called glucosinolates.

May be protective against certain cancers

Sulforaphane is the inactive form glucoraphanin belonging to the glucosinolate family. Found in cruciferous vegetables, this compound is recognized for its antioxidant and anti-cancer effects. (13)(10)

Allium vegetables are rich in organosulfur compounds, which may also help inhibit the growth of cancer cells in the esophagus, breasts, and lungs, according to some animal studies. (4)

Furthermore, MSM may also have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects, contributing to its potential anti-cancer benefits. (18) Studies have shown that MSM may help boost immune function and induce cancer cell death in colon, gastrointestinal, and liver cancers. (6) Glutathione, a powerful antioxidant that supports immune function and protects cells from inflammation, requires sulfur for its synthesis and structure. (9) Research has shown that supplementing with MSM and eating plenty of sulfur-containing foods may increase glutathione levels and encourage the upregulation of glutathione enzyme activity, as well as reduce oxidative stress that can lead to cancer. (17)(5)(2)(6)(20)

Lowers risk of certain neurodegenerative diseases

Glucosinolates have been shown to reduce the risk of developing certain neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. (23) Emerging research has demonstrated that sulforaphane-rich foods may have protective effects against amyloid beta-induced oxidative damage that can contribute to the development of neurodegenerative diseases. Sulforaphane may also promote the clearance of amyloid-beta plaque buildup in the brain, potentially reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. (14)

The bottom line

Sulfur is necessary for several bodily functions and existing research suggests a possible link between the intake of sulfur-rich foods and a lower risk of certain chronic conditions. The main dietary sources of sulfur include allium and cruciferous vegetables, animal proteins, dairy, legumes, nuts, and seeds. While there is no recommended daily allowance for sulfur, consuming a variety of these foods can ensure you’re getting plenty of sulfur in your diet.

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  1. Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition. (n.d.). Food data chart – Sulphur. Retrieved July 23, 2020, from http://apjcn.nhri.org.tw/server/info/books-phds/books/foodfacts/html/data/data5g.html
  2. Bahadoran, Z., Mirmiran, P., Hosseinpanah, F., Hedayati, M., Hosseinpour-Niazi, S., & Azizi, F. (2011). Broccoli sprouts reduce oxidative stress in type 2 diabetes: a randomized double-blind clinical trial. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 65(8), 972–977.
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  5. Bogaards, J. J. P., Verhagen, H., Willems, M. I., Poppel, G. . v. a. n., & Bladeren, P. J. (1994). Consumption of Brussels sprouts results in elevated α-class glutathione S-transferase levels in human blood plasma. Carcinogenesis, 15(5), 1073–1075.
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  7. Doleman, J. F., Grisar, K., Van Liedekerke, L., Saha, S., Roe, M., Tapp, H. S., & Mithen, R. F. (2017). The contribution of alliaceous and cruciferous vegetables to dietary sulphur intake. Food Chemistry, 234, 38–45.
  8. Fuentes, F., Paredes-Gonzalez, X., & Kong, A.-N. T. (2015). Dietary glucosinolates sulforaphane, phenethyl isothiocyanate, indole-3-carbinol/3,3′-diindolylmethane: Antioxidative stress/inflammation, Nrf2, epigenetics/epigenomics and in vivo cancer chemopreventive efficacy. Current Pharmacology Reports, 1(3), 179–196.
  9. Grimble, R. F. (2006). The effects of sulfur amino acid intake on immune function in humans. The Journal of Nutrition, 136(6), 1660S-1665S.
  10. Guerrero-Beltrán, C. E., Calderón-Oliver, M., Pedraza-Chaverri, J., & Chirino, Y. I. (2012). Protective effect of sulforaphane against oxidative stress: Recent advances. Experimental and Toxicologic Pathology, 64(5), 503–508.
  11. Guo, S., Ge, Y., & Na Jom, K. (2017). A review of phytochemistry, metabolite changes, and medicinal uses of the common sunflower seed and sprouts (Helianthus annuus L.). Chemistry Central Journal, 11(1), 95.
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  14. Jaafaru, M., Abd Karim, N., Enas, M., Rollin, P., Mazzon, E., & Abdull Razis, A. (2018). Protective effect of glucosinolates hydrolytic products in neurodegenerative diseases (NDDs). Nutrients, 10(5), 580.
  15. Kim, J. K., & Park, S. U. (2016). Current potential health benefits of sulforaphane. EXCLI J, 15, 571–577.
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  23. Zhang, F. (2017). Sulforaphane Protects against Brain Diseases: Roles of Cytoprotective Enzymes. Austin Journal of Cerebrovascular Disease & Stroke, 4(1), 1054.
  24. Zhang, X., Shu, X.-O., Xiang, Y.-B., Yang, G., Li, H., Gao, J., … Zheng, W. (2011). Cruciferous vegetable consumption is associated with a reduced risk of total and cardiovascular disease mortality. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 94(1), 240–246.
  25. Zhao, C., Rakesh, K. P., Ravidar, L., Fang, W.-Y., & Qin, H.-L. (2019). Pharmaceutical and medicinal significance of sulfur (SVI)-Containing motifs for drug discovery: A critical review. European Journal of Medicinal Chemistry, 162, 679–734.

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