Sulfites are used as a food preservative or enhancer. They may come in various forms, such as:
Sulfur dioxide, which is not a sulfite, but a closely related chemical oxide
Potassium bisulfite or potassium metabisulfite
Sodium bisulfite, sodium metabisulfite or sodium sulfite
Sulfites occur naturally in all wines to some extent. Sulfites are commonly introduced to arrest fermentation at a desired time, and may also be added to wine as preservatives to prevent spoilage and oxidation at several stages of the winemaking.
Sulfur dioxide (SO2, sulfur with two atoms of oxygen) protects wine from not only oxidation, but also from bacteria. Without sulfites, grape juice would quickly turn to vinegar.
Organic wines are not necessarily sulfite-free. In general, sweet (dessert) wines contain more sulfites than dry wines, and some sweet white wines contain more sulfites than red wines.
In the United States, wines bottled after mid-1987 must have a label stating that they contain sulfites if they contain more than 10 parts per million.
In the European uniion an equivalent regulation came into force in November 2005. In 2012 a new regulation for organic wines came into force.
Sulfites are often used as preservatives in dried fruits, preserved radish, and dried potato products.
Most beers no longer contain sulfites. Although shrimp are sometimes treated with sulfites on fishing vessels, the chemical may not appear on the label.
In 1986, the Food and Drug Administration in the United States banned the addition of sulfites to all fresh fruit and vegetables that are eaten raw.
Sulfites are counted among the top nine food allergens,[dubious – discuss] but a reaction to sulfite is not a true allergy. Some people (but not many) have positive skin allergy tests to sulfites indicating true (IgE-mediated) allergy. It may cause breathing difficulty within minutes after eating a food containing it, asthmatics and possibly people with salicylate sensitivity (or aspirin sensitivity) are at an elevated risk for reaction to sulfites. Anaphalaxis and life threatening reactions are rare. Other symptoms include sneezing, swelling of the throat, and hives.
In the U.S., labeling regulations do not require products to indicate the presence of sulfites in foods unless it is added specifically as a preservative; however, many companies voluntarily label sulfite-containing foods. Sulfites used in food processing, but not specifically added as a preservative, are only required to be listed if there are more than 10 parts per million (ppm) in the finished product.
The products most likely to contain sulfites (fruits and alcoholic beverages less than 10ppm) do not require ingredients labels, so the presence of sulfites usually is undisclosed.
In 1986, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the use of sulfites as preservatives on foods intended to be eaten fresh (such as salad ingredients). This has contributed to the increased use of erythorbic acid and its salts as preservatives.
In Australia and New Zealand, sulfites must be DE CLAREd in the statement of ingredients when present in packaged foods in concentrations of 10 mg/kg (ppm) or more as an ingredient; or as an ingredient of a compound ingredient; or as a food additive or component of a food additive; or as a processing aid or component of a processing aid.
Sulfites are widely used to extend the shelf life of products. Because it is often difficult to know whether a food contains sulfites, many people do not realize they may have a sensitivity to sulfite when they are having reactions to food or drinks.
Sulfites are also known to destroy vitamin B1 (thiamin), a vitamin essential for metabolism of carbohydrates and alcohol.
High sulphite content in the blood and urine of babies can be caused by molybdenum cofactor deficiency disease which leads to neurological damage and early death unless treated. Treatment, requiring daily injections, became available in 2009.