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Hidden sulfites in food may cause illness

Question: I have a problem with sudden and severe diarrhea, and have tried without much success to trace it to specific foods. My most recent attacks have followed the consumption of mashed potatoes in restaurants. Is it possible there were food additives present that might cause such a reaction?

Answer: We can only guess what might have triggered your attacks, but sulfite preservatives are a possible culprit. Some people experience hives, dizziness, severe breathing difficulties or life-threatening anaphylactic shock after exposure to even small quantities of these chemicals. Other people react with severe diarrhea.

Sulfite compounds are used occasionally to keep foods fresh. They may be found in wine, dried fruits, shrimp, lobster, mushrooms and salad bar items.

Restaurants sometimes buy ready-peeled potatoes from commercial processors who treat them with sulfites to keep them from turning brown. Hash browns and French fries are potential problems, but we can't guarantee that mashed potatoes are immune.

Experts recommend that people sensitive to sulfites be especially careful when eating out. If they want potatoes they should probably restrict themselves to baked potatoes.

Tofu for hot flashes?

Question: I have been experiencing hot flashes and night sweats off and on for almost six months. My doctor is enthusiastic about estrogen, but I am reluctant to start on hormones. I have heard that estrogen could increase your chances of breast cancer. That scares me to death.

A friend of mine told me you wrote about soy as a way of coping with hot flashes. Please tell me what foods I should eat. Are there any herbs that might help?

Answer: There is no question that estrogen can be very helpful in relieving troublesome symptoms of menopause such as night sweats, hot flashes or vaginal dryness. It is also apparent that estrogen can help protect against the bone loss that often accompanies aging.

Many women, however, are as reluctant as you are to take estrogen for the rest of their lives. Breast cancer survivors and women with a family history of breast cancer may be discouraged from using postmenopausal estrogen. This difficult decision requires close communication between a woman and her physician so that her most important health problems and fears can be addressed.

Whether you take estrogen or not, you might consider soy products. One woman wrote us, "I have one-half cup of tofu a day. It is absolutely wonderful. I haven't had a single hot flash or night sweat." Soy milk and meat substitutes may also be helpful.

We are sending you a brochure with a more complete discussion of plant-based estrogens. Anyone who would like our Guide to Estrogen: Benefits, Risks & Interactions, please send $2 with a long (No. 10) stamped, self-addressed envelope to Graedons' People's Pharmacy, No. W-39, P.O. Box 52027, Durham, NC 27717-2027.

Herbs such as black cohosh and ginseng may also have some estrogenic action and are reported to help ease menopausal symptoms.

Bilberry and night vision

Question: How effective is bilberry? I understand this herb is used for some kinds of eye problems.

Answer. Folk wisdom holds that bilberry is beneficial for improving night vision. Studies have shown that bilberry extract can help the eye adjust quickly between bright and dark conditions. Whether it is useful for other eye problems has not been established.

In their column, Joe and Teresa Graedon answer letters from readers. Write to them in care of the Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33705 or e-mail to

1997 King Features Syndicate Inc.