Recent results show that treatments with reducing agents, including the sulfur oxyanions dithionite and hydrogen sulfite, efficiently improve the fermentability of inhibitory lignocellulose hydrolysates, and that the treatments are effective when the reducing agents are added in situ into the fermentation vessel at low temperature. In the present investigation, dithionite was added to medium with model inhibitors (coniferyl aldehyde, furfural, 5-hydroxymethylfurfural, or acetic acid) and the effects on the fermentability with yeast were studied. Addition of 10 mM dithionite to medium containing 2.5 mM coniferyl aldehyde resulted in a nine-fold increase in the glucose consumption rate and a three-fold increase in the ethanol yield. To investigate the mechanism behind the positive effects of adding sulfur oxyanions, mixtures containing 2.5 mM of a model inhibitor (an aromatic compound, a furan aldehyde, or an aliphatic acid) and 15 mM dithionite or hydrogen sulfite were analyzed using mass spectrometry (MS). The results of the analyses, which were performed by using UHPLC-ESI-TOF-MS and UHPLC-LTQ/Orbitrap-MS/MS, indicate that the positive effects of sulfur oxyanions are primarily due to their capability to react with and sulfonate inhibitory aromatic compounds and furan aldehydes at low temperature and slightly acidic pH (such as 25°C and pH 5.5). Biotechnol. Bioeng. 2011;108: 2592–2599. © 2011 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.