Most lunch meats do not contain sulfites.

Do Lunch Meats Contain Sulfites?

by Adam Cloe Ph.D./M.D.

Sulfites are a compound added to certain foods as a preservative. However, some people are sensitive to sulfites and they may develop a powerful -- and potentially fatal -- reaction to them. Although most lunch meats should not contain sulfites, people sensitive to these compounds should ask a grocer for confirmation before purchasing lunch meats.

1. Sulfite Function

Sulfites are naturally found in the human body and in some foods and beverages, such as wine. Sulfites may also be added to foods because they can prolong shelf life and help prevent the growth of bacteria. Sulfites may also be used to bleach starchy foods, such as potatoes, and they may be found in some materials used for packaging foods, such as cellophane.

2. Sulfite Sensitivity

The presence of sulfites in foods is a health issue because approximately one percent of people may be sensitive to them. In severe cases, sulfite sensitivity can cause bronchospasm, which can impair breathing. Other signs of sulfite sensitivity include abdominal cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, anxiety, paleness, rapid heartbeat, loss of consciousness, flushing, swelling of the face and eyes, faintness and trouble speaking.

3. Foods with Sulfites

Sulfites can be found in many foods, such as baked goods, jams, canned vegetables, pickles, soup mixes, gravies, dried fruits and trail mix. Sulfites may also be present in certain vegetable and fruit juices, beer, wine, bottled lime/lemon juice, tea, molasses, shrimp, dehydrated potatoes, condiments and molasses. Notably, lunch meats are absent from many lists of sulfite-containing foods, possibly because the FDA has banned the use of sulfites in most meats and foods with vitamin B1, which is also known as thiamin. The University of Florida IFAS Extension notes, "sulfites have been found to destroy thiamin."

4. Avoiding Sulfites

People that are sensitive to sulfites must be vigilant about avoiding foods with this additive. Check ingredient labels for sodium sulfite, sulfur dioxide, potassium sulfite and other ingredients with the term "sulfite" in them. Sulfite-sensitive individuals should talk to a grocer before buying deli meat or other foods without an ingredient list to see if sulfites are present. If there is any doubt, the food should not be consumed, especially by people with severe sensitivity.

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