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Surprising truths about cereal, packaged meat

ConsumerMan Herb Weisbaum explains how to choose a healthier breakfast and answers other questions about food labeling.
/ Source: contributor

It takes a lot of work to be a smart food shopper these days. Package claims can often be confusing or misleading. This week, ConsumerMan Herb Weisbaum answers some of your food-related questions.

I want to start my day with a healthier breakfast. Are there any specific brands of cereal you’d recommend?
-Greg H., Evanston, Ill.

To get the best possible breakfast cereal, ignore the marketing hype on the front of the box and concentrate on what’s inside. You want a cereal that has a whole grain listed as the first ingredient. Then check the nutrition facts panel to see how much fiber you’re getting. Some cereals have very little fiber per serving.

Here are a few recommendations based on a recent cereal survey done by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. If you’re looking for low sugar, consider the original Cheerios, Wheaties or Total. They have about 3 grams of fiber per serving. If you want a cereal with significantly more fiber, but no added sugar, go with Shredded Wheat.

Cereal made with yogurt sounds healthy, but it’s not really yogurt.

“In most cases, you’re getting a mixture of sugar, palm kernel oil and dextrose, which is another form of sugar,” says CSPI’s senior nutritionist Jayne Hurley. Even if there is some yogurt powder in the cereal, it has been heat treated, Hurley explains, “so it doesn’t have any of the good bacteria that we would eat fresh yogurt to get.” Her advice: “Skip those cereals.”

Why does organic milk have such a long shelf life? We see on the carton that it’s been ultra-pasteurized. Is that the reason? If so, why isn’t non-organic milk ultra-pasteurized so it would also have a longer shelf life?
Doug B., Seattle

Not all organic milk is ultra-pasteurized, but much of the industry now uses this process. You can even find some non-organic milk that’s been ultra-pasteurized.

All pasteurization involves heating the milk to kill bacteria. With standard pasteurization, the milk is heated to 161.5 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 seconds. This kills 99.9 percent of the harmful bacteria. With ultra-pasteurization, the milk is heated to 280 degrees Fahrenheit for just two seconds. Scientists at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences say this higher temperature is “much more lethal to bacteria.” which extends the milk’s shelf life.

The “sell by” date for most pasteurized milk is 14 to 21 days after processing; it’s 45 to 55 days for most ultra-pasteurized milk.  If stored at the proper temperature (34-38 degrees F) all milk should be good for a few days past the "sell by" date.

In case you’re wondering, the American Dietetic Association says ultra-pasteurized milk is nutritionally the same as milk that has been pasteurized the standard way.

What are some of the products/chemicals used to keep meats looking fresh? Are there side effects?
- Nell M., Charleston, S.C.

Some big meat packers use a simple but controversial process to keep their products looking red longer. They remove the air inside the package and pump in a little carbon monoxide gas. Yes, carbon monoxide! It may sound strange, but the Food and Drug Administration says the process is safe.

Randall Huffman, vice president of scientific affairs with the American Meat Institute, an industry trade group, says this modified atmosphere packaging prevents premature browning and maintains the red color consumers are accustomed to. Huffman says the process “improves the quality of the product” and “reduces spoilage at the supermarket.”

Consumer groups think the process is misleading, and they want it banned. At the very least, they argue, the FDA should require labels on meat treated this way. Otherwise, they say, consumers who use appearance rather than “sell by” date to judge freshness — as so many do — could buy or use spoiled meat that still looks good. The industry rejects that argument, claiming bad meat would smell or show other signs of spoilage.

By the way, this is not an issue you need to worry about if the meat you buy is cut or ground at your local store.

What are the current government labeling requirements to identify genetically altered food products?
Liz, Jonesboro, La.

In most cases, manufacturers don’t have to tell you if their foods or the ingredients in their products were produced using biotechnology. The Food and Drug Administration decided in 1992 that genetically engineered food does not present “any different or greater safety concern than foods developed by traditional plant breeding.” 

If a bioengineered food has a significantly different nutritional property, or if it includes an allergen that consumers would not expect to be present based on the name of the food, the FDA says that information must be disclosed on the label.

If you want to make sure the food you buy at the supermarket has not been genetically engineered, look for the "certified organic" label. Government regulations say certified organic products or ingredients cannot be produced using biotechnology.

Splenda seems to be sneaking into many more foods these days. Why is there no clear label on all products containing Splenda?
TD, Florida

Splenda is the No. 1 artificial sweetener on the market today, used in more than 4,000 products. Manufacturers like it because it’s cheaper than other artificial sweeteners and does not require any health warnings.

But it’s not “sneaking” into products. If it’s in the food, it must be included in the list of ingredients, just as any other sweetener — artificial or natural — would have to be listed. Splenda is a brand name for sucralose, a sweetener made from engineered sugar, so you may see it listed that way. Because the product is not metabolized by the body, it is calorie-free.