Today I went to the grocery store. I decide to try a new cereal, and have a glance at the “Nutrition Facts” label. Then I look at a second, then a third, then a fourth, then I try a couple from Kelloggs, then a few from Post Cereals, then my teeth start grinding…
Under recent Canadian law, all processed foods need nutrition information to be listed, including the amount of carbohydrates, protein, fat, trans-fats, cholesterol, and various nutrients and vitamins. Everyone is required to comply by December 12, 2007. The process that led to these new regulations was a battle royale that makes Baghdad look like Mayberry. Some of the more controversial issues were
- how to express the amounts (it was decided to use % of recommended daily intake, which was fought over bitterly by the companies)
- the inclusion of trans-fats within fats (they are particularly dangerous, and have never been given out before)
- cholesterol amounts, etc.
Today I was reminded of a loophole that was carefully kept unplugged. It seems there is leeway in specifying the serving sizes that the nutrition amounts are based on. Not only that, but a single company can use different serving amounts for the same sort of product, and I saw it in one case for different box sizes of the same type of cereal! For example, here are some of the serving sizes for a “typical serving” I saw today; 1/2 cup, 2/3 cup. 3/4 cup, 1 cup, and 11/4 cup. The smallest size is 40% of the largest size, or the largest size is 250% the size of the smallest, depending on how you view your cups!
The whole point of nutrition labels is to determine the health content of food in a simple and convenient manner (hence “typical” serving being something that is realistically typical), and also to be able to directly compare different brands to see which fits your needs the best. This loophole deliberately acts against this intent. It is almost lying in intent, in that they are trying to make it difficult to directly compare different products.
On the positive side, it is good practice in fractions, percentages, and memory for those so inclined. You might almost consider it brain food.
Here are some other potential problems with current food labelling:
- how cholesterol in food is related to serum cholesterol in your body, and thus how meaningful cholesterol levels in food labels are
- what is the standard size consumer that they used to get the % Daily Value? I tried looking for 30 minutes with no luck…
- for some components, what are dangerous amounts below RDI, and what are dangerous amounts above RDI?
BTW, after all this, I’m eating bagels this week for breakfast!