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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Checking the Science in the Science Fair

Mark Anderson in the St. James Plaindealer writes about a Middle School Science Fair.

Jonathan Peterson already knew about lactose intolerance because he has to watch his own diet for lactose. But his science fair project gave him a chance to go more into depth and teach others about the dietary condition.

Peterson posted a list of foods on his display, then covered up the answer key telling whether they contained lactose.

Good going, Jonathan. Simple, interactive, informative, and entertaining. High marks.

But content is as important as presentation.
Foods included chicken noodle soup, potato chips, fruit loops, crackers, roast beef, life savers, bread, jelly, processed hamburger, marshmallows and french fries.

Of those, visitors were surprised to learn only the roast beef, life savers, jelly and marshmallows are lactose free.

I'm surprised too, I'm sad to say. Let's go over these answers.

Chicken noodle soup. There must be 50 million chicken noodle soup recipes in the world. With all that variation, it would be no surprise to discover that somebody, somewhere must add a dairy product. Normally, however, there's no good reason to expect to find any lactose in chicken noodle soup. And you wouldn't expect to find any in normal commercial chicken noodle soups. Here's the ingredients list for Campbell's Condensed Chicken Noodle Soup. No lactose containing ingredients. Some restaurants may include dairy, though. The fast food chain Chick-fil-A's
Hearty Breast of Chicken Soup contains nonfat milk, whey, and butter. Chicken noodle soup is something to ask about when eating out, but can easily be found lactose-free commercially or made at home.

Potato chips. Similar situation. Your plain, standard, everyday potato chips will almost certainly be lactose-free. Plain potato chips aren't hip and cool, which is to say that brand extension ensures that potato chips comes in a huge variety of flavored varieties. You'd expect that sour cream and onion or cheddar or ranch flavored chips would have dairy in them and you'd be right.

Fruit loops. I have to assume that either Jonathan got it wrong or the reporter transcribed it weirdly. I can't find a product called "fruit loops." What any kid will be familiar with is Kellogg's Froot Loops. Slight problem. Kellogg's Froot Loops has no dairy products.

Crackers. Of the ten million different cracker products in the world, some will be lactose-free and some won't. No way of knowing unless you can read the ingredients list.

Life savers. Believe it or not, butter rum flavor Life Savers hard candy actually contains real butter. Unless you knew this, you could go through a dozen or more flavors and think they were all lactose-free, as Jonathan apparently did. I've read so many ingredients lists in my life that I happen to know of this exception.

Bread. Lots of different breads. Some, like real French or Italian breads or Jewish ryes, are bound to be lactose-free. Most commercial varieties will contain some lactose.

Jelly. Most commercial jellies will be lactose-free. I don't know of any exceptions, but I could be surprised by one tomorrow.

Processed hamburger. I honestly don't know why this is listed as having lactose. Cheeseburgers, sure. Hamburger buns, possibly. But the hamburger itself? And what does "processed" mean? I suppose some grills might use a butter-based product for frying, but oil is cheaper and more likely. Pure hamburg should be lactose free.

Marshmallows. Should be lactose-free.

French fries. Many years ago, the warning lists giving foods with lactose in them would often include french fries. I found out they did this because commercial french fries are sprayed with sugar that browns when cooked to give them that good golden appearance. That sugar is uniformly dextrose, however, a different sugar than lactose. I've never come across a real world example of lactose being used as a browning agent for french fries. That's true for all true cut-from-the-potato fries. Supermarkets and fast food restaurants are not necessarily that simple. Some flavored fries may, as with potato chips, have a dairy-based flavor added or be made of chopped, formed, processed potatoes that use some dairy as a flavoring or cooking ingredient.

Life is unfortunately not as simple as Middle School. Being aware that lactose may lurk in all sorts of products is a lesson that's a terrific one to drill into all kids with lactose intolerance or milk allergies. The complications of food processing science may take a bit longer to fully understand. Either way, reading the ingredients lists or asking waiters or serving staff are musts.

And thanks to Jonathan Peterson for coming up with such a useful teaching opportunity. Sorry to be such a tough grader.

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