Sulfites are a group of sulfur-based compounds that may occur naturally or may be added to food as an enhancer and preservative. The FDA estimates that one out of 100 people is sensitive to the compounds. A person can develop sensitivity to sulfites at any time in life, and the trigger for the sensitivity is unknown. For a person who is sensitive to sulfites, a reaction can be mild or life threatening.
In 1986, the FDA banned the use of sulfites on fruits and vegetables that are eaten raw, such as lettuce or apples. Regulations also require manufacturers who use sulfites in their processed products to list the compounds on their product labels.
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Although sulfites are no longer used on most fresh foods, they still can be found in a variety of cooked and processed foods. They also occur naturally in the process of making wine and beer.
Avoiding foods that contain or are likely to contain sulfites is the only way to prevent a reaction. If you are sensitive to sulfites, be sure to read the labels on all food items. When eating out, ask the chef or server if sulfites are used or added to food before or during preparation.
Examples of foods that may contain sulfites include:
Beer and wine
Sparkling grape juice
Bottled lemon juice and lime juice
Fresh or frozen shrimp
Dehydrated, pre-cut or peeled potatoes
Sulfite-containing ingredients to look for on food labels include: