UH hotline aRose Saito gets the strangest calls. "A woman called saying, 'I went to a party and they had this great dish. Can you give me the recipe?' And I'm like, I didn't go to the party!"
Bring on your queries about fat,
food safety and odd vegetables
By Mark Vogel
Special to the Star-Bulletin
But you can understand why the woman might have taken a chance. Saito and her colleagues run the University of Hawaii's Consumer Food and Nutrition Helpline, celebrating its first anniversary this month. The help line provides information on safe food handling, local fruits and vegetables, nutrition guidelines and more. Consumers can leave phone messages or e-mail their questions.
"There are five of us that man the line," Saito said. "We call in several times during the day to retrieve messages and try to get back to them as soon as possible." Each staffer possesses expertise in a certain area. "Some have a dietetics background. Some have more experience working with different foods or how to prepare different things."
The help line does not provide recipes because it does not yet have a formal process for testing them. Instead, it suggests various resources such as the Internet and the library. But that still leaves a lot of nutritional ground to cover.
CONSUMER FOOD AND
Web site: http://www2.hawaii.edu/foodskills/consumerhelpline.htm
Food safety, for example, is a primary concern. "We try to promote proper handling of the food and proper care and proper storage," Saito said.
Many consumer questions concern meat and spoilage issues. "A lot of times a caller will say, 'I bought this meat the other night, and I forgot to put it in the freezer. Do you think it's still good?' Or at Thanksgiving, people will call with, 'I left my stuffing overnight in the turkey, what should I do?' People call just wanting to be reassured that they can use it. But the answer is usually no."
Often, the answer is not obvious. For, example one caller's chow fun had spoiled and wanted to know why.
"Sometimes you have to be a doctor and find out what the symptoms are in order to discover what went wrong," Saito said. "She said she got everything fresh from Chinatown: the noodles and fresh ginger and fresh bean sprouts and everything. I had to question her several times: 'Are you sure you cooled the noodles down when you brought them home?' Yes. 'Sure it was fresh?' Yes."
Saito was finally able to make a diagnosis. The woman had cooled her 10 pounds of noodles in a vat that was too large, creating an ideal situation for spoilage. She advised the caller that next time she should cool them in a flat pan.
Some inquiries come from people who recently moved to a new property and discovered unusual fruit trees in the yard. "People may have a fruit, but they don't know what it is," Saito said, "so we help them to identify it on the phone."
She gives the example of a hard-to-identify fruit called jaboticaba, originally from Brazil. "It looks like a small plum, and it grows on the trunk of the tree and it has a real nice flavor. It's purple, and the flesh on the inside is white. It makes good jams or jellies."
Callers' questions also reflect changing consumer interests. "There are a lot of new kinds of vegetables that are on the market (such as edible hibiscus and the so-called cholesterol spinach). Local people aren't familiar with these, so we'll get calls on how to prepare certain vegetables."
The helpline's Web site is an extensive resource on food safety, nutrition, ingredient substitutions, and detailed fruit and vegetable guides. One page offers shopping safety tips such as selecting cold food "last," and getting it home "fast." Another entry lists 10 tips to protect kids, such as turning pot handles toward the back of the stove.
The site also includes links to other information, such as a study on egg safety, a page on foodborne illnesses and a list of barbecue food safety tips. Consumers can also test their knowledge of food-handling procedures by linking to the National Network for Child Care's food safety test.
Nutrition is another important area. "People want to know how much sugar, or carbohydrates, or certain vitamins and minerals are in a particular food," says Saito.
The Web site gives tips on low-fat cooking and offers physical activity and weight-management guidelines. Of local interest is the site's link to the Queen's Medical Center's Pacific Food Pyramid, which promotes healthy island-style eating.
It seems that people have learned that the service can provide more than just information on food, Saito said. "You talk to the person on some subject, and it turns into, 'What about this?' or 'What about that?'" Recently Saito found herself advising a caller on how to get a strange odor out of the polyester fabric on his jacket.
"Each of us has our own areas of expertise," she said with a laugh.
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