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Eating Smart

The Scoop on Olive Oil, Mold and More


Regular readers know that from time to time we look at your questions and try to put together as many answers as we can. Today is one of those days. Here goes.


Question: What's so special about olive oil?

--C.G., Garden Grove.

Answer: Olive oil is largely made up of monounsaturated fatty acids, which are known to have a cholesterol-lowering effect when substituted for saturated fat in the diet. There are other oils that are high in monounsaturated fats, like peanut and canola, which seem to work just as well. In fact, almost any unsaturated oil may do the same thing in the context of a heart-healthy diet that lowers overall fat intake.

But olive oil has a long history and a wonderful flavor, which means that it can add richness to foods. Having been raised to the status of a culinary icon, certain varieties can also be very expensive. All vegetable oils have 125 calories per tablespoon, all of which come from fat.


Q: I'm trying to avoid caffeine, and I know that it is found in a lot of things besides coffee. Can you give me a list?

--P.R., Tucson

A: It is quite true that although coffee is one of the biggest sources of caffeine, it is not the only one. Even "decaffeinated" coffee has some. The following list was published in the January 1999 issue of the Berkeley Wellness Letter.

* Milk chocolate (1 ounce) has 1 to 10 mg

* Hot cocoa (6 ounces), 2 to 20 mg

* Tea (6 ounces), 20 to 100 mg (depending on the type of tea and strength brewed)

* Coca-Cola (12 ounces), 45 mg

* Coffee, decaffeinated (6 ounces), 2 to 5 mg

* Coffee, instant (6 ounces), 60 to 100 mg

* Coffee, drip or brewed (6 ounces), 80 to 175 mg (depending on the strength)

* Coffee, espresso (2 ounces), 90 to 110 mg

* Chocolate cake (one medium slice), 20 to 30 mg

* Anacin or Midol (two pills), 64 mg

* Excedrin (two pills), 130 mg

* NoDoz (two pills), 200 mg

There are other hidden sources that you might not think of, like some non-cola soft drinks.


Q: I bought some strawberries and found that a few at the bottom of the basket were moldy. Should I have thrown all of them out?

--D.L., Orlando, Fla.

A: As with a lot of things, unintended molds (like the fuzzy stuff that grows on berries) are the most dangerous for people in poor health. The molds that we find on grains are usually the most toxic and cannot be killed by cooking, so they must be discarded.

In the case of berries, a few moldy specimens (which should obviously not be eaten) will not spoil the rest. But you should examine all the berries carefully and throw out any that are questionable.

One way to avoid mold on berries is to hold off on washing until you're ready to eat them, and don't buy more than you can use in a short period of time.

On other hard fruits and vegetables, like potatoes, apples or onions, moldy areas can be cut away and discarded. Mold on hard cheese should be cut about an inch away from the mold and the rest can be safely eaten. But toss out soft cheese or yogurt (or other dairy products) with mold. Any meat, bread, leftovers, condiments or soft fruits and vegetables that develop mold should also be thrown out.


Q: I'm on a crazy work schedule and end up eating dinner just before I go to bed. Is this going to make me gain weight?

--G.M., Camden, N.J.

A: If you keep the number of calories in your diet constant, when you eat them doesn't really matter. The calories you consume at night will just be burned when your body needs them. And don't forget that sleeping for eight hours can burn about 400 calories all by itself, depending on your body weight and a number of other factors. However, if you are eating extra calories at bedtime, like high-calorie snacks, and not adding extra activity to burn them up, sooner or later they will catch up with you.


Q: Of all the melons out there, which ones are the most nutritious?

--S.U., Los Angeles.

A: Well, watermelon, for all its rich red color, is largely water, and the other light-colored melons are only moderate sources of specific nutrients. Cantaloupe, however, is a real star. A 6-ounce serving contains more than the recommended dietary intake of vitamin A (as beta carotene) and vitamin C. It also has some folacin, other B vitamins and fiber.

Remember that all melons (like all fruits) contain a variety of nutrients and fiber that, even in small amounts, make them a good bet. Eating a variety of fruits will ensure that you get the full range of advantages that they have to offer.


Dr. Sheldon Margen is a professor of public health at UC Berkeley; Dale A. Ogar is managing editor of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter. Send questions to Dale Ogar, School of Public Health, UC Berkeley, Berkeley CA 94720-7360, or by e-mail to Eating Smart runs every Monday.

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