Photograph by Liz West, Creative Commons 2.0
Photograph by Liz West, Creative Commons 2.0

Counting Calories? You Might Not Want to Trust Food Labels

If your dieting self has ever tried to piece together one whole chip from several fragments to determine what a food label’s “about six chips” looks like so you stay within a 130-calorie serving, this one’s for you.

Who decided that one ounce of chips is the standard serving anyway? Large bags of chips invariably list that weight as the standard portion, even though few people limit themselves to just one ounce. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standardized serving sizes 20 years ago, actually to ease comparison of similar foods. To be fair, it’s quite easy now to see how much fat is in a one-ounce serving of Lay’s versus a one-ounce serving of Ruffles.

But the regulation reforms that nutritionists applauded a couple of decades ago haven’t kept up with our times. Last month I attended the James Beard Foundation’s policy conference at which pastry chef Emily Luchetti wondered why people decline dessert yet load up on hidden sugars in processed foods, noting that a can of Campbell’s tomato soup contains as much sugar as a Hershey Bar.

Why Reading Food Labels is Tricky

I mentioned this interesting fact in my regular radio spot later that week and the editorial desk received the following email from a listener: “Campbell’s tomato soup, 305 gram size has 12 grams of sugar… Her information was not true.” This drives me bananas, because good, smart Americans who take time to read food labels carefully still can’t read food labels accurately.

A 305 gram can (the standard size) of Campbell’s tomato soup contains “about 2.5 servings,” even though many eat an entire can as one serving, and the label reads “Sugars 12 g”—so the entire can contains about 30 grams of sugar. Even a “Heat and Enjoy” container of tomato soup, which is sold in a microwaveable bowl apparently intended to be enjoyed by one person, holds two servings so the label states “Sugars 12 g” even though the entire container includes 24 grams of sugar.

How one cup of soup became the standard serving size is data-based, but sketchy. The FDA used eating-habits information from the 1970s and 1980s to determine the 1-ounce serving size of potato chips, the infamous half-cup of ice cream, etc. All portion sizes, even back then, were self-reported. (Sure, I ate just a half-cup of ice cream, right before I drank half a glass of wine and smoked two-thirds of a cigarette.)

The 1970s were 40 years ago (yikes), and, as we’ve all heard, American eating habits have changed substantially. If the FDA’s mandate is matching serving sizes to what people eat. it’s not happening in 2014. But increasing serving sizes on labels comes with its own minefields—for example, normalizing the larger portions we have grown accustomed to and encouraging the one-ounce potato-chip-eating people to eat more. Should a “serving size” be understood as a simple unit of measurement (like a foot is not the size of an actual foot), or an estimated reflection of what people eat, because that is what the public understands when they read “serving size”? The FDA’s current consideration of placing limits on the definition of a “single-serving” size container may be a shot across the bow that changes to standard portion sizes could be imminent.

What if Food Labels Don’t Work?

The FDA has also proposed reforming nutrition labels on food so people like the radio listener more easily interpret labels. The new labels would place “Servings Per Container” above “Serving Size” and make them both larger and in bold face type, among other reforms. (The FDA’s website has a terrific mockup.) When listing grams of items such as sugar and fat, instead of “Amount Per Serving” the label would state, for example, “Amount Per XX grams” (whatever the actual serving size is).  This, the regulations reason, would indicate to the public that there is more than one serving per can. It could clear things up considerably just because currently, the soup can front states its contents in grams, while the servings on the back are identified mililiters.

We’ll see what the final labels will look like now that the food industry had a chance to comment on the new regulations. Certainly a lot of dollars are, appropriately, spent by food companies protecting their interests. I get that nutrition labeling is complex, and involves stakeholders with complex needs that are at the foundation of America’s vitality: health, economy, agriculture. But the whole reason the government mandates nutrition labeling is to assist Americans in maintaining and improving their health.

I once heard two lawyers argue a defective-weapons case. The lawyer for the company who sold the weapons made lots of fancy, impressive arguments about contract law and the other lawyer just got up and said, “um, but the guns don’t shoot.” Labels are tools, and people who take time to carefully fact-check information heard on the radio should be able to read them accurately. What if food labels just don’t work?