Sulfites prevent browning or discoloration in food like baked goods, condiments, potatoes and shrimp. The chemicals are particularly prevalent in dried fruit like apricots, to preserve the light coloring after drying. Winemakers also use sulfites to maintain freshness and prevent oxidation. In the ’70s and ’80s, the use of sulfites as food preservatives drastically increased, as did the number of people who began experiencing reactions.
“A sulfite sensitivity is a real thing, but it’s not a true allergy,” says Dr. Steve Taylor, director of the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program at the University of Nebraska. “An allergy involves some abnormal response of the immune system, and the immune system is not involved in this at all. It is some form of intolerance.”
Most allergic reactions occur after inhaling the sulfites powdered on foods while eating them. This can then lead to difficulty breathing or wheezing, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that less than 1% of the population in the United States experiences this sensitivity.
The people most at risk are asthmatics, especially those who use steroid medications. Taylor says that about 5 to 10% of people with asthma will have a sulfite sensitivity, but it’s extremely rare for non-sufferers to experience it. Even 80% of asthmatics with mild symptoms don’t have sulfite sensitivities.
Since 1986, the FDA has become more stringent about sulfites in foods, banning it in fresh fruits and vegetables (minus potatoes) as well as salad bars. For those looking to avoid sulfites, skip snacks with these ingredients:
- Sulfur dioxide
- Potassium bisulfite
- Potassium metabisulfite
- Sodium bisulfite
- Sodium metabisulfite
- Sodium sulfite
As for the oft-cited wine headache, Taylor says there’s no confirmation supporting the link. In fact, wine contains 10 times less sulfites than dried fruits. For those people who have eaten dried fruits and have never had issues, a sulfite sensitivity is most likely not the cause.
If you suspect you might have a sensitivity, Taylor recommends seeing an allergist. A professional confirmation means you’ll have to give up wine and dried fruit, but there are plenty of other treats that are fair game.