Today at the supermarket I saw dried fruit that had “unsulfured” written on the packaging.
Is that a healthier choice?
– Lindsay Kleiner Chicago, IL
Sulfur dioxide is a much-loved additive by the food industry since it does three things very well:
It prevents natural enzymatic processes (ie: the reason why apple slices turn brown when exposed to air) from happening
It makes bacterial growth on food almost impossible
It severely delays spoilage
It does what is the most beautiful of all music to food companies: EXTENDS SHELF LIFE!
Is sulfur dioxide harmful? It depends on context.
If you worked in a factory alongside vats of sulfur dioxide and decided to take a whiff from one, then, yes, you would be in severe trouble (and most likely dead by the time an ambulance arrived).
That, of course, is an extreme example, and one that could be applied to many foods we safely consume on a daily basis (the 200 or so milligrams of caffeine in two cups of coffee is of no concern, but if you are injected with 50,000 milligrams of caffeine intravenously, it’s a very different story).
The amount of sulfur dioxide in dried fruit is too insignificant to have any impact on human health. It would only be an issue if you consumed ridiculously — and implausibly — high amounts of dried fruit on a daily basis for several years.
That said, there are three significant reasons why people seek out unsulfured dried fruit.
First, many consumers choose to avoid foods that contain additives for a variety of personal reasons.
Number two? Taste! Some people are sensitive to an off-flavor that can be characteristic of fruits that contain sulfur dioxide.
Then there’s the paramount issue that resulted in the mandatory labeling of sulfured — and unsulfured — products: allergies.
People who are allergic to sulfur dioxide have absolutely horrible respiratory reactions when exposed to even the tiniest of amounts. In the 1980s there were actually a few deaths as a result of individuals allergic to sulfur dioxide consuming unlabeled products that contained the additive.
As a result, starting in 1987, food products that contained sulfur dioxide at levels of at least 10 parts per million must list it on the ingredient list (where it is usually listed as “to preserve freshness”).
I’m personally a huge fan of unsulfured dried fruit. I find it tastes better. Besides, I don’t mind if my dried fruit isn’t super shiny and colorful.
The more important thing to keep in mind when buying dried fruit is to avoid varieties with added sugars, artificial colors, and partially hydrogenated oils!
Lisa some people try to sun dry apricots by first coating them with lemon juice or ascorbic acid, because you need something to inhibit the mold from growing while the apricots dry. (that's the number 1 reason sun dryers use sulfur dioxide.)
You can buy a dehydrator, or use a very low oven for a very long time. Depending on the power of your dehydrator and the thickness of your fruit pieces this might result in a semi-dried apricot or one slightly more dried. Commercial dehydrators produce the preservative-free crisp fruit pieces used in cereals, so a good dehydrator can take almost all the moisture from the fruit.
There are some good commercially produced sun-dried apricots without sulfur dioxide. The dried fruit is tan in color, less moist than a classic dried apricot, but more moist than a dehydrated one. Good luck.