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Groceries get second life in food banks

October 22, 2008

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Ever wonder what stores do with leftover meat, milk, muffins and canned goods that have stuck around beyond their sell-by or use-by dates? After Consumer Reports mystery shoppers recently discovered 72 products past their prime in 31 stores across seven states, they asked food-industry insiders for the scoop.

As long as the food isn't spoiled - many date codes indicate when an item is apt to be fresh and flavorful rather than unfit for consumption - many retailers and manufacturers donate expiring goods to hunger-relief charities.

Feeding America (formerly known as America's Second Harvest) is the largest such operation in the United States. It distributes more than 2 billion pounds of donated groceries per year to 200 food banks, which work with community-based food pantries and soup kitchens to feed the hungry. It's the supermarket industry's preferred channel of distribution of "unsalable" products.

Feeding America works with almost every major food manufacturer and grocery chain, as well as the agricultural industry, to collect items that aren't suitable for retail sale but are still safe and nutritious. Apart from expiring goods, the mix includes bruised produce, items with missing labels, overstocks and discontinued merchandise. Feeding America asks supermarkets to freeze fresh meat shortly before its sell-by date, which provides an extra 60 to 90 days to distribute the food.

Some stores donate directly to local groups. Florida-based Publix, for example, gives store-made baked goods to homeless shelters, food pantries, after-school centers and churches. And some foods are tossed. Costco is reluctant to give away leftover rotisserie chickens out of safety concerns over how they're handled once they leave the store.

Tastiest oatmeals

When it's time for oatmeal, good things come to those who wait. The editors of Consumer Reports found that the more cooking required, the more oaty the flavor and the less mushy the texture.

CR's tests of 10 of the most popular flavored instant oatmeals found that nine of 10 were good but nothing special; their sweetness and maple or brown-sugar taste overwhelmed the oats.

On the other hand, when CR evaluated four plain oatmeals from Quaker, the most popular brand, the longer-cooking ones all tasted very good. Quaker Steel Cut (25 to 30 minutes, 26 cents per serving); Old Fashioned (5 minutes, 19 cents); and Quick-1 Minute (19 cents) were chewy, with a toasted nutty grain flavor.

Oatmeal generally makes for a healthful breakfast. It's fairly high in fiber, and eating 3 ounces (weighed dry) a day can cut total cholesterol by about 5 milligrams per deciliter.

That doesn't mean all oatmeals are nutritionally identical. The unflavored, longer-cooking ones CR tasted have slightly fewer calories than some flavored instants, no sodium and no added sugar. Those attributes make the longer-cookers a very good nutritional choice. (A tablespoon of brown sugar, about 12 grams, would add roughly 50 calories.)

Most of the flavored instants scored Good for nutrition: They're OK, but most have sodium and lots of sugar, so there are better choices. All but the organic oatmeals have added vitamins and minerals. Quaker Weight Control Maple & Brown Sugar (46 cents) might sound healthier, and it has less sugar and more fiber than other flavored instants, but it has more sodium than the rest and as many calories as most.

According to CR, the longest-cooking oatmeals tasted best, and leaving out salt and sugar keeps them especially healthful. Someone hooked on flavored instant oatmeal should consider Market Pantry Maple & Brown Sugar (Target) the best-tasting flavored instant by a narrow margin and just 17 cents per serving. For a flavored instant that's especially low in sodium and high in fiber, consider Kashi Heart to Heart Golden Brown Maple at 44 cents per servings.

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