Friday, December 26, 2014

Decoding Nutrition Facts

Every food package has a table of nutrition facts.  The government has talked about making this information larger, easier to see and read.  But which of these facts is most important?  Is it the number of calories, the amount of fat, the amount of sodium, the vitamin content, or something else?  I contend that the most important number by far is at the top of the label, serving size or servings per container.

One reason that this is very important is that it makes sense of the rest of the numbers.  As an interesting example take a single frozen 16 oz. Marie Callender’s Creamy Mushroom Chicken Pot Pie.  It proudly shows on the front of the box only 430 calories, 10% saturated fat, 600mg sodium, and 4g sugars.  Except that the saturated fat may be a little high, this looks like a pretty healthy meal.  (The small print on the front of the box right above this display of good diet news says:  PER 1 CUP SERVING.)  The first clue should be the 16oz size.  That may seem a little much, but it is chicken and vegetables and crust, and it's only a single pie.

The detail on the back, under the “Nutrition Facts,” states “Serving Size 1 Cup (200g)” and “Servings Per Container about 2” – about 2!  In fact there are 456 grams in 16oz – that information can also be found on the front of the package – so servings per container is a little more than 2 and a quarter.  The effect of this new information is astounding!  The package really contains more like 980 calories, plus almost 115% of daily recommended saturated fat, almost 1370mg of sodium and more than double the sugar.  It’s still only one pie.  Someone might reasonably expect to eat it in one sitting rather than eat half now and reheat the other half tomorrow or split it with someone else.  Cutting a pot pit in half is not the easiest thing to do – it’s semi-liquid inside.  Who would think of doing this?  If you don’t though, all the promises on the front of the package are pretty hollow.  Marie Callender didn’t lie; but without exercising a little more than ordinary care, it’s very easy to be fooled and eat way too much while believing you are eating responsibly.

This is not an isolated case.  Every food package has this information, and it must be all put together to get the entire picture.  Another example where the honest representation can be tricky comes from breakfast cereal.  A 23.5oz box of raisin bran and an 18oz box of bran flakes are about the same size and cost about the same.  The raisin bran box says it contains 11 servings, the all bran 18.  How does that work?  They are sold by weight and raisins weigh more than flakes.  As it turns out, the bran flakes box is 60% cheaper per serving and contains only about 30% of the sugar. 

Now some people have as much faith in serving size labels as they do in the MPG window sticker on a new car.  No one drives that way and no one eats that way.  You can believe the numbers or not, but none of the other important information makes any sense without first considering serving size.

Will the government mandating larger “Nutrition Facts” labels lead consumers to make better decisions?  Time will tell.  But they must also become more careful shoppers, on their toes, and using critical thinking to sort through, recognize and wisely apply the information regardless of font size.  

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