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

Your feelings are understandable, bubba. 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. The government thinks that’s fine, 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 system 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.

I love to fix toasted tuna fish sandwiches, but sometimes a whole one is too much and I make one with only one slice of bread. Imagine my horror and shame recently upon realizing I’d toasted the single slice in the wrong slot of the toaster (the one not marked “ONE SLICE”)! I ate it anyway. What are the implications of using the wrong slot–jail, food poisoning? Why is there a “ONE SLICE” slot at all? –Cliff Fuerman, Springfield, Virginia

Prison in your case doesn’t sound like such a bad idea, Cliff, but don’t worry, this is one time when sticking your spongy white stuff in the wrong orifice won’t get you in trouble. The “ONE SLICE” slot is where the toaster’s thermostat is. Use the other opening and you could wind up with under- or overcooked toast. If your toaster has an energy-saver feature, in which only the heating coils in the center and on one side warm up when you make one slice, why, things might come out half-baked. Hmm. Maybe you should be more careful.


It is with great humility that I must point out an error in the Straight Dope. Please don’t feel I am questioning your omniscience; obviously this was the work of terrorists. In your December 16 column, you addressed the timeless question of whether a bullet shot from a gun will hit the ground at the same time as a bullet dropped from an equal height. You correctly stated that if the bullet were shot at 7 miles per second it would reach escape velocity. Your error is in assuming this means the bullet would go into orbit around the earth. On the contrary, escape velocity means just that–the speed at which the bullet would escape the earth’s gravity altogether and fly off into space. Orbital velocity is less–at an altitude of 180 miles, not quite 5 miles per second. As an illustration, the lunar missions had to achieve a speed of 7 miles per second to be able to reach the moon, while the space shuttle ambles along at a leisurely 5 miles per second while in orbit around the earth. –Joseph Kile, Madison, Wisconsin

I like you cheeseheads. You’re so respectful. So understanding. Now get outta here before I kill you.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.