Sunday, January 12

The Calorie Conundrum

ABC News trumpeted the "good news" this week that "2010 Pledge by Food Companies Results in Reduced Portion Sizes, 6.4 Trillion Fewer Calories - Already 4 Times the Pledged Reduction!"

Apparently, 16 major food companies took a pledge in 2010 to cut 1 trillion calories out of their products by 2012 and 1.5 trillion calories by 2015. The well-known, philanthropic Robert Wood Johnson Foundation agreed to hold the companies accountable, and paid for researchers to keep track of their efforts. It's representatives joined ABC in celebrating the coalition's recently announced accomplishments.

As someone who is passionate about food, has worked in the food industry, and was taught critical thinking skills (thank you Mom & Dad!), I have not yet been able to decide if this news makes me want to laugh, roll my eyes, or bang my head against a wall. I'm thinking of sticking with the very healthy response standard to my ISTJ personality type which, as Mark Gungar so eloquently puts it, is to "decide they're wrong and get on with my life."

Before I do, though, I would just like to explain (for the benefit of anyone less inculcated with how the food world works, as the RWJ Foundation apparently is) why this "good news" is anything but. 

When I was a young, naive new manager fresh out of college, a chef I once worked with (who was completely talented and amazing) explained to me that there are two things every food service organization loves to add to food: air and water. Why? Because they're free. Prime examples are things like whipped cream cheese, whipped yogurt, smoothies, or mousse-based desserts, or puff pastries. By whipping or blending in air and water (often in the form of ice), you create a product that looks larger than it is and sell people less actual product for the same amount of money (or more, if you have good marketers!), thus raising your profit margins.

(Incidentally, as products like soy and corn have been steeply subsidized by government funds to the point that they cost almost nothing, new products like soy protein isolates, corn syrup, and "vegetable" oil have been added to this list, which is why they now show up in almost everything.)

Food companies certainly weren't about to substitute higher calorie ingredients with healthier, lower-calorie, more expensive options when they could just whip or puff in a little extra air and water and still hit the standards set for them. By challenging food companies to reduce the calories in their foods, the RWJ Foundation and its collaborators essentially handed them carte blanche to raise their profit margins and give consumers less value for their dollar! Of course they've met their goals ahead of schedule - who wouldn't want to capture the new profits as quickly as possible?

As for the portion sizes, any one who's ever read the side of a food package can tell you that these numbers are entirely made up and unrelated to real life. When is the last time you opened a box and carefully counted out the four or five crackers typically considered a standard serving size according to the packaging? If you're like the majority of the population, probably never. Unless food has been packed in single-portion servings, the amount the an individual will actually eat has not changed at all - only the numbers printed on the side of the box.

Ultimately, though surely well intentioned, the challenge to food companies to cut calories was deeply misguided. All calories are not created equal; simply cutting calories does not inherently make one healthier. While it can be helpful to monitor one's calorie intake to maintain a balance between what we take in and what we burn off, it is the quality of those calories that determines whether or not a person is going to be healthy and have a body equipped to fight off disease, heal itself when injured, and maintain the brain functions necessary to learn, focus and make good decisions.

It is regrettable that foundations seeking to improve health, particularly for the undeserved and at-risk populations in our nation, are spending their time and money working with Big Food to slightly manipulate processed food rather than investing in initiatives focused on nutrient-dense real food such as fresh farm produce and locally raised meat which support local economies and are significantly less prone to cheap manipulation. 

What is perhaps even more tragic, however, is that so few people have the critical thinking skills or knowledge base about America's food supply that news like this can be touted as wonderful and not be publicly called out by the organizations (governmental, non-profit and otherwise) who purport to be protecting our food supply.

This picture compliments of Futurama's Saturday Morning Fun Pit.

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