On Nutrition by Ed Blonz

99 PERCENT CAFFEINE-FREE? CLOSE ENOUGH

DEAR DR. BLONZ: One of my resolutions is to cut down on caffeine from all sources, but I'm finding that labels do not spell out how much caffeine is actually there. There are plenty of products claiming to be "99 percent caffeine-free." Does this mean the product still contains 1 percent of its caffeine, or that 99 percent of the ingredients listed are caffeine-free, or what? If the product had a bunch of caffeine and 99 percent was removed, doesn't this mean that there may still be enough to give a caffeine-sensitive person a minor jolt? -- N.O., Boston

DEAR N.O.: Let's go down your list of concerns to clear up the confusion. The "percent caffeine-free" claim relates to the caffeine in a product as a whole. Given the sensitivity of analytical devices, few ingredient-removal processes can claim to be 100 percent effective, and the decaffeination process is no exception. This means that irrespective of how much caffeine was originally present, there will always be a very small amount of it in a decaffeinated product.

A 6-ounce cup of coffee normally contains between 100 and 200 milligrams of caffeine (the finer the grind and longer the brew, the higher the number). For decaffeinated coffee, the amount drops to about 2 milligrams of caffeine -- hardly enough to cause even a minor case of the jitters.

Caffeine-free cola drinks make their claim because there was never any caffeine to start with. The caffeine gets added to the regular beverage, and is simply omitted for the caffeine-free version.

The ingredient statement on a food label will list caffeine whenever it is added to a product. This means you'll find it on caffeine-containing soft drinks, but it won't appear on the label for a product such as chocolate-covered espresso beans, where the caffeine is a natural component of the coffee bean. There is no requirement to state how much caffeine is present in a food; to get this information, you will have to consult the manufacturer or check the USDA Nutrient Database (ndb.nal.usda.gov), which lists the caffeine content for many foods.

DEAR DR. BLONZ: I am a vegetarian and would like some nutritional information on dates and raisins. Are they a good source of iron, or is it best to take a supplement? -- S.T., Chicago

DEAR S.T.: Dates and raisins do contain some iron, with a half cup containing 1 milligram and 1.5 milligrams of iron, respectively. If you enjoy dried fruits, you might consider figs, which contain just over 2 milligrams of iron per half cup. Other vegetarian sources of iron include dark green leafy vegetables, lentils and other legumes, blackstrap molasses, iron-fortified cereals and enriched breads. Assuming there are no health problems or absorption issues that would create a need to take a larger amount, a vegetarian should have no problem satisfying his or her iron requirement using foods alone. The National Institutes of Health has more information on iron in the diet at tinyurl.com/cksla.

Send questions to: "On Nutrition," Ed Blonz, c/o Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to questions@blonz.com. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.