The Kitchen Think: It Says Trans Fat Free… But Is it?


I know many of you ditched trans fats a while back… way ahead of the FDA’s decision last week to ban trans fats in our food.

But you should know that just because a product’s label screams “0 Trans Fat!!”, doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily true.

Nestlé's Original Coffee-Mate Creamer

Nestlé’s Original Coffee-Mate Creamer

Here’s what I’m talking about: Look at the ingredient list on a product. The Nutrition Facts say “Trans Fat 0”… but in the list of ingredients, it says, “partially hydrogenated oil.”  Any oil that is partially hydrogenated is a trans fat.

A little misleading, right?

Here’s something else: The FDA lets food companies claim that a food product is “trans fat-free” if it has 0.5 grams or less per serving… like Fig Newtons and Premium Saltine Crackers. That is NOT trans fat free.

Having worked for several major food companies, I know it takes a long time to reformulate ingredients, especially those that have trans fats, because hydrogenated oils give foods taste and texture and helps prolong their shelf life.

Nilla Wafers are a good example. You get that crisp snap because the trans fat keeps the cookie from going stale and becoming soft. Nestlé’s Coffee Mate is smooth, rich and creamy because the third ingredient (after water and sugar) is hydrogenated oil.

Here’s hoping that the FDA’s ban on trans fat is the first step in recognizing that we need to clean up our food supply. What’s up next? Sodium? Sugar? High fructose corn syrup? Parabens? Nitrates? BHT? Tartrazine? The list goes on and on.

The Kitchen Think: Are No-Snack School Halloween Parties Fair?


Say goodbye to this at your kids’ school Halloween parties:

Halloween cupcakes

I have a feeling that what just happened at my neighborhood school is going to become a nationwide trend by next year: no snacks, candy or treats at school holiday parties.

Halloween is just too frightening for parents of kids with allergies.

But I know EXACTLY what those worried parents are thinking… and what they fear each time their child walks out the door. My youngest has an anaphylactic shock-inducing allergy to peanuts. She’s learned to be safe about her food. But every time I hear of a child who dies because of allergic reaction, that gnawing anxiety that it could happen to her comes flooding back.

Nut allergies were once the biggest concern at school parties. These days, navigating the allergy minefield is just too tricky, so why chance it at all? Even moving from sugary sweets to healthy treats like apples and hummus won’t work… someone might have a legume allergy.

With the nation’s obesity rate where it is, classroom parties should not HAVE to be food based… there are other ways to celebrate. Instead of decorating cupcakes, the school in my neighborhood will be making bracelets and cards to send to a children’s hospital and doing other age-appropriate community projects.

But honestly, it does make me a little sad to see that food-festooned parties are on their way out. I used to love to see some of the more inventive things the really competitive moms would bring to the Halloween parties.

Thank goodness for Pinterest!


The Kitchen Think: Food Allergy Restaurant Rules


Eating out last night for Mother’s Day reminded me once again just how difficult it can be to dine out if you have a food allergy.

Sistie has wrestled with a severe peanut allergy for years, but now she’s dealing with “oral allergy syndrome” because of her sensitivity to birch pollen (found in some fruits and vegetables)… and that’s on top of her sensitivity to lactose and high fructose corn syrup. Oy.

Even though GP spoke with the restaurant* before making the reservation and we mentioned her allergies to the wait staff, Sis still asked about every single item she thought about ordering.

Clearly, the wait staff was superbly trained. Not only did they patiently answer every question, but returned to the kitchen to double-check if there was the slightest doubt. That is amazing conscientious service.

We’ve also experienced the complete opposite: impatient, indifferent servers who, short of rolling their eyes, acted like we were just picky eaters. When that happens, we leave. Why risk it?

This is Food Allergy Awareness Week and, while there are tons of yummy-pie recipes that you can make at home, eating out is part of our social culture (and fun!), so why limit yourself?

Here are a few tips if you’re dining out with someone who has a food allergy.

Plan: Call during off-peak hours to see if the restaurant can accommodate you. Be honest about the extent of the allergy or sensitivity. Looking at online menus is a good idea, but when you speak with someone at the restaurant, you can discuss cross-contamination issues as well as food substitution possibilities.

Communicate: Tell your server about the allergies, even if you’ve already made the phone call (and it’s noted in your reservation). You don’t need to be overly dramatic, but let them know the consequences of an allergic reaction (if necessary). One other thing… without becoming abrasive (something Mama continues to work on), watch the server’s body language to see if they “get it.” If you’re not comfortable, call a manager… or leave.

Double-Check: Before digging in to eat, look closely at what is served. Did they put pesto on the vegetables? Are those breadcrumbs or just chopped garlic? If in doubt, point it out!

Educate: Encourage your kids to understand their allergies so they’ll know how to plan, communicate and double check their restaurant meals when you aren’t around (and you WON’T be around for every meal as they get older).

• Finally, always make sure you have your emergency medicine!

There are a couple of really good websites that have lists of allergy-friendly restaurants. Allergy Eats not only has a great interactive website for all kinds of dietary needs, but also a cool App. The Living Without website has a huge list of restaurants that offer gluten-free menus and sometimes cater to those with other food allergies. Gluten Gurus is aimed specifically at those with Celiac Disease (May is Celiac Awareness Month, by the way).

*The restaurant we dined in was Spiaggia in Chicago. Kudos to Chef Sarah Grueneberg for making the evening so enjoyable… and safe!

Chef Sarah Grueneberg




I’m Christina Chavez

I was a TV journalist for many years, but with a house full of kids I decided to come off the road, go to culinary school and follow my passion for cooking. Mama’s High Strung is all about food… everything from creative recipe ideas to some really cool kitchen gadgets and cooking tips. I live in Chicago, but I love to travel and write about my food discoveries! You can reach me by email: