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Why do food labels say, “may contain the following oils ….” Don’t they know?

Dear Cecil:

When I read the ingredients of certain foods, I often see something of this sort: " … oil (may contain one or more of the following: soybean, safflower, palm, and/or lard) …" Don't the food companies know what they're putting in their own products? Don't they care? I mean, they're either putting lard in the food or they're not.

Ben Schwalb, Laurel, Maryland

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Dear Ben:

Your feelings are understandable. As many consumer advocates have pointed out, knowing exactly what’s in a product is no trivial matter. For example, a Muslim or an Orthodox Jew obviously would object to eating lard, which comes from pigs, but wouldn’t mind something like safflower oil. Of wider significance is the fact that animal fats and tropical oils like palm and coconut are much higher in saturated fat than ordinary vegetable oils such as soy, safflower, and cottonseed. Saturated fats, of course, have been associated with heart disease.

The reason the labels aren’t more specific is that the food companies want to be able to substitute shortenings depending on availability and price without having to change labels at the same time. To date federal regulators haven’t made an issue of it, pointing out that present labeling standards are actually stricter than they were in the early 70s, when all you had to say was “shortening.”

Ah, but this is America. The free market has come to the rescue. In the last year or two the food companies have finally realized that by refusing to be more specific about their ingredients they were needlessly chasing away potential customers. General Mills is now phasing tropical oils out of all its products, and recently reformulated its Bisquick biscuit mix so it contains only cholesterol-free vegetable oils. The ingredients labels will be rewritten accordingly. To make sure you’ve got the new version, check the label or look for “No Cholesterol” on the front of the box.

Cecil Adams

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