What are Empty Calories?

MyPlate.gov., a division of the Dept. of Agriculture offers the following information about foods we eat, and really enjoy, that really don’t give us the nutrients we need but do give us what are referred to as “empty calories.”

caloriesMany of the foods and beverages Americans eat and drink contain empty calories –- calories from solid fats and/or added sugars. Solid fats and added sugars add calories to the food but few or no nutrients. For this reason, the calories from solid fats and added sugars in a food are often called empty calories. Learning more about solid fats and added sugars can help you make better food and drink choices.

Solid fats are fats that are solid at room temperature, like butter, beef fat, and shortening. Some solid fats are found naturally in foods. They can also be added when foods are processed by food companies or when they are prepared. Added sugars are sugars and syrups that are added when foods or beverages are processed or prepared.
Solid fats and added sugars can make a food or beverage more appealing, but they also can add a lot of calories. The foods and beverages that provide the most empty calories for Americans are:

  • Cakes, cookies, pastries, and donuts (contain both solid fat and added sugars)
  • Sodas, energy drinks, sports drinks, and fruit drinks (contain added sugars)
  • Cheese (contains solid fat)
  • Pizza (contains solid fat)
  • Ice cream (contains both solid fat and added sugars)
  • Sausages, hot dogs, bacon, and ribs (contain solid fat)

These foods and beverages are the major sources of empty calories, but many can be found in forms with less or no solid fat or added sugars. For example, low-fat cheese and low-fat hot dogs can be purchased. You can choose water, milk, or sugar-free soda instead of drinks with sugar. Check that the calories in these products are less than in the regular product.

In some foods, like most candies and sodas, all the calories are empty calories. These foods are often called “empty calorie foods.” However, empty calories from solid fats and added sugars can also be found in some other foods that contain important nutrients. Some examples of foods that provide nutrients, shown in forms with and without empty calories are:


Food with some empty calories Food with few or no empty calories
Sweetened applesauce (contains added sugars) Unsweetened applesauce
Regular ground beef (75% lean) (contains solid fats) Extra lean ground beef (96% or more lean)
Fried chicken (contains solid fats from frying and skin) Baked chicken breast without skin
Sugar-sweetened cereals (contain added sugars) Unsweetened cereals
Whole milk (contains solid fats) Fat-free milk

Making better choices, like unsweetened applesauce or extra lean ground beef, can help keep your intake of added sugars and solid fats low.

A small amount of empty calories is okay, but most people eat far more than is healthy.

It is important to limit empty calories to the amount that fits your calorie and nutrient needs. You can lower your intake by eating and drinking foods and beverages containing empty calories less often or by decreasing the amount you eat or drink.

Myths about Keeping Food Safe in the Refrigerator


September is National Food Safety Education Month. The Partnership for Food Safety Education, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Food and Drug Administration want consumers to know that some beliefs people have about keeping food safe in the refrigerator aren’t true.

Myth 1: I know my refrigerator is cold enough – I can feel it when I open it! Anyway, I have a dial to adjust the temperature.

Fact:  Unless you have thermometers built into your fingers, you need to use a thermometer to ensure your refrigerator is at or below 40 °F.  And that dial? Important, but it is not a thermometer.

As many as 43% of home refrigerators have been found to be at temperatures above 40 °F, putting them in the food safety “danger zone” where harmful bacteria can multiply and make you and your family sick!

Slow the growth of bacteria by using a refrigerator thermometer to tell if your refrigerator is at 40 °F or below. And if it isn’t?  Use that dial to adjust the temperature so it will be colder. Then, use your refrigerator thermometer to measure again.

Myth 2:  Cross-contamination doesn’t happen in the refrigerator – it’s too cold in there for germs to survive!

Fact:  Bacteria can survive and some even grow in cool, moist environments like the refrigerator.

In fact, Listeria bacteria can grow at temperatures below 40 °F! A recent study showed the refrigerator produce compartment was one of the “germiest” places in the kitchen, containing Salmonella and Listeria.

To reduce the risk of cross-contamination in your refrigerator:

  • Keep fresh fruits and vegetables separate from raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs
  • Clean up food and beverage spills immediately, and
  • Clean your refrigerator regularly with hot water and liquid soap.  Don’t forget to clean the refrigerator walls and undersides of shelves!

Myth 3: I left some food out all day, but if I put it in the refrigerator  now, the bacteria will die.

Fact:   Refrigerator temperatures can slow the growth of bacteria, but will not stop the growth of bacteria in food. 

If food is left out at room temperature for more than two hours, putting it into the refrigerator will only slow bacterial growth, not kill it. Protect your family by following the 2-hour rule—refrigerate or freeze meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, cut fresh fruits and vegetables, and all cooked leftovers within 2 hours of cooking or purchasing. Refrigerate within 1 hour if the temperature is above 90 ºF.

While refrigeration does slow bacterial growth, most perishables will only keep for a few days in the refrigerator. To keep perishables longer than a few days—like most meat, poultry and seafood—you can freeze them.

Myth 4:  I don’t need to clean my refrigerator produce bin because I only put fruit and vegetables in there.

FACT:   Naturally occurring bacteria in fresh fruits and vegetables can cause cross-contamination in your refrigerator.

A recent NSF International study found that the refrigerator produce compartment was the #1 “germiest” area in consumers’ kitchens!  To prevent the buildup of bacteria that can cause food poisoning, it is essential to clean your produce bin and other bins in your refrigerator often with hot water and liquid soap, rinse thoroughly, and dry with a clean cloth towel or allow to air dry outside of the refrigerator.

For more myths and facts about food safety, go to:


Food Safety at Summer Fairs and Festivals

foodThe Centers for Disease Control want us to practice food safety at fairs and festivals throughout the summer.

One of the CDC publications  asks us to remember that the usual safety controls that a kitchen provides, like thermostat-controlled cooking, refrigeration, and washing facilities, may not be available when cooking and dining at these events. Here are some things they suggest you do or find out to prevent foodborne illness:

Before you buy food from a vendor check out the following:

  • Does the vendor have a clean/tidy workstation?
  • Does the vendor have a sink for employees to wash their hands?
  • Do the employees wear gloves or use tongs when handling food?
  • Does the vendor have refrigeration on site for raw ingredients or pre-cooked foods?
  • Has the vendor been inspected? Requirements vary by state, but in general, temporary and mobile vendors, like those at fairs and carnivals, should have a license to sell food and beverages in a particular state or county. You can check with the local health department to see if the vendors are licensed and if a food inspection has been completed.

Are there healthy food alternatives to consider at fairs and festivals?

When purchasing food from a vendor, look for foods that are healthy for you. If they are not available, consider bringing your own food to save money and calories. Don’t forget to keep safe food storage practices in mind.

If bringing food from home, what are the proper food handling and storage practices?

If you bring food to a fair or festival from home, be sure to keep food handling and storage times in mind. Don’t let food sit out for more than two hours. On a hot day (90°F or higher), reduce this time to one hour. Be sure to put perishable items in a cooler or insulated bag

Remember to Wash Hands Often:

  • Find out where hand washing stations are located.
  • Always wash your hands right after petting animals, touching the animal enclosure, and exiting animal areas even if you did not touch an animal.
  • Always wash hands after using the restroom, after playing a game or going on a ride, before eating and drinking, before preparing food or drinks, after changing diapers, and after removing soiled clothes or shoes.
  • Bring hand sanitizers or disposable wipes in case there aren’t any places to wash your hands.

Report Illness:

Anytime you suspect you may have contracted a foodborne illness, report it to your local health department, even if it is after you have recovered. The local public health department is an important part of the food safety system. Often, calls from concerned citizens are how outbreaks are first detected. If a public health official contacts you to find out more about an illness you had, your cooperation is important. In public health investigations, it can be as important to talk to healthy people as it is to ill people. Your cooperation may be needed even if you are not ill.

USDA Offers Summer Food Safety Tips In Advance of Memorial Day Weekend

foodWarmer temperatures call for extra attention to food safety when cooking and eating outdoors.

WASHINGTON, May 20, 2015 – Memorial Day weekend marks the unofficial start to summer, and many Americans will celebrate with cookouts, camping, road trips and other activities that involve food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is reminding families to take extra care not to let foodborne bacteria, which grows more quickly in hot weather, ruin the fun.

“This Memorial Day weekend and all summer long, I encourage families to get outside and enjoy our natural resources, national parks and forests, and the variety of food America’s farmers are able to provide,” said Agriculture Secretary Vilsack. “It’s important to remember that bacteria grow faster in the same warm temperatures that people enjoy, so extra care needs to be taken to prevent food poisoning when preparing meals away from home. USDA reminds everyone to use a food thermometer, and take advantage of resources like our FoodKeeper app to help with any food handling questions.”

Last month, USDA launched its FoodKeeper mobile app, which contains specific guidance on more than 400 food and beverage items, including safe cooking recommendations for meat, poultry and seafood products.

The app provides information on how to store food and beverages to maximize their freshness and quality. This will help keep products fresh longer than if they were stored improperly, which can happen more often during hot summer days. The application is available for free on Android and Apple devices.

Due to a variety of factors, including warmer temperatures, foodborne illness increases in summer. To help Americans stay healthy and safe, USDA offers the following food safety recommendations.

Bringing food to a picnic or cookout:
• Use an insulated cooler filled with ice or frozen gel packs. Frozen food can also be used as a cold source.
• Foods that need to be kept cold include raw meat, poultry, and seafood; deli and luncheon meats or sandwiches; summer salads (tuna, chicken, egg, pasta, or seafood); cut up fruit and vegetables; and perishable dairy products.
• A full cooler will maintain its cold temperature longer than a partially filled one. When using a cooler, keep it out of the direct sun by placing it in the shade or shelter.
• Avoid opening the cooler repeatedly so that your food stays colder longer.
Cooking on the grill:
• Use separate cutting boards and utensils for raw meat and ready-to-eat items like vegetables or bread.
• Keep perishable food cold until it is ready to cook.
• Use a food thermometer to make sure meat and poultry are cooked thoroughly to their safe minimum internal temperatures
• Beef, Pork, Lamb, & Veal (steaks, roasts, and chops): 145 °F with a 3 minute rest time
• Ground meats: 160 °F
• Whole poultry, poultry breasts, & ground poultry: 165 °F
• Always use a fresh, clean plate and tongs for serving cooked food. Never reuse items that touched raw meat or poultry to serve the food once it is cooked.
Serving food outdoors:
• Perishable food should not sit out for more than two hours. In hot weather (above 90 °F), food should NEVER sit out for more than one hour.
• Serve cold food in small portions, and keep the rest in the cooler. After cooking meat and poultry on the grill, keep it hot until served – at 140 °F or warmer.
• Keep hot food hot by setting it to the side of the grill rack, not directly over the coals where they could overcook.


Children, Teens and Fast Food Calories

Recent studies demonstrate that few children and teens pay attention to the nutritional information, especially calories, listed on the menu when ordering in fast food restaurants. They also significantly underestimate the calories in the foods they order, often by 500 or more calories.

 Eating out, for many teens, is about eating what they want with no regard for the effect it has on their weight.

According to the Journal on Obesity, eating fast foods out on a regular basis is part of in the growing problem of obesity in the U.S. Mandatory labeling of calories in foods in restaurants has been proposed as one way to help people make healthier food choices.

New York City was the first city to implement a posting calories requirement in chain restaurants. Now calorie labeling is mandated nationally by the Affordable Care Act. The law requires restaurants with 20 or more locations nationwide to post the calories in each food item either on menu boards or printed menus.

Most of the children  and teens interviewed in the studies, that took place in Boston and in New York City, were not aware of how many calories they needed each day for a healthy diet and what foods were the best choices for meeting their daily intake of calories.

The answer is not that children and teens give  up the fun of eating out in a fast food restaurant, but rather they need to learn how to eat out and keep food choices in line with their calories for the day.

Occasionally eating out at fast food restaurants as a family can be a way to help young children learn about how to use the calorie labeling to make good meal choices. Ordering based on calories and the nutritional value of each food on the menu will hopefully have carry over value to when they are making those choices on their own,  as teens, and eating out with friends.

Source:Journal of Obesity