Calorie Deceit

We really shouldn’t tolerate this kind of thing:

Potato chips????

Potato chips????

I know what people will say: it’s up to you to read the label carefully. And sure it is, but when I have 25 minutes to run to the local Harris Teeter and throw enough food into the cart to keep the family and the dog from starving over the coming four days, reading the fine print on intentionally misleading labels and doing quick mathematical calculations based on what I read really isn’t an option—-and obviously the food companies know it. Thus I just discovered that the tasty, vegetarian frozen burritos I bought on sale because they looked healthy as well as good had twice the calories that I thought they did.

These are small frozen burritos–each one, and the packages hold exactly one, would fit on one of those airplane microwave entre plates. The box said it was 220 calories, which is a responsible lunch for me. It was only when I heated up the damn thing that I read that the contents were really 220 calories per serving, and this two-inch square chunk of cheese, beans, corn and rice was supposedly two servings. Who would regard one small burrito square as two servings? If we’re going to play this game, what’s stopping the package from claiming that the package contains four servings, or eight? 44o calories is better than a Big Mac,  but I would venture that virtually nobody cuts that burrito in half.

On the same midnight grocery trip, I was asked to pick up a package of Chex Mix. Seven years ago, I complained about the intentionally deceptive Chex Mix labeling, which proclaims in bold, red lettering that the contents contain “60% Less Fat.” If you take the time to read the much smaller print that follows, you will discover the surprising answer to the question, “Less fat than what?” The natural assumption would be that the claim means that Chex Mix has cut back on its calories, meaning that the rest of the phrase is “than Chex Mix used to have.” No. As in 2005, Chex Mix has the utter gall to tell us that it has “60% Less Fat” than “regular potato chips.”

This drives me crazy. There isn’t a single potato in Chex Mix, nor are there anything that could accurately be described as “chips.” The descriptor  “regular potato chips” suggests that Chex Mix are some special form of potato chip, which they obviously are not. This is pure deceit. As I wrote in 2005…

“As long as Nabisco was pulling this trick, why stop at potato chips? Heck, why not, say: “90% LESS FAT than a regular can of Crisco”? That’s as “true” as the potato chip statistic. After all, the real intent of the company isn’t to pass along gratuitous comparisons with different snacks…it’s to deceive the consumer into buying a package of Chex Mix based on a misunderstanding of what “60% LESS FAT” refers to. If not, then why is half the sentence in such small print?…It is as dishonest, in effect, as a Chex Mix label that read:

“PROMOTES HEART HEALTH better than a pound of greasy French fries!” or “PREVENTS CANCER if you eat a bag instead of smoking a pack of cigarettes.

Never mind, though. I’ll probably fall for it again in another seven years.

31 thoughts on “Calorie Deceit

  1. This is one of the topics that I stumbled through when I was 12. One of the neighborhood moms (in Utah at the time) was driving us and she was explaining a bit of her job and what she was currently working on was getting accurate food labeling. For an example, she showed me a can of soda and when I told her I thought 1 can was 1 serving, she pointed out that the label says a serving is 8oz. I thought that was a real stretch back then! Amazing that 20 years later, we still have this problem. I do believe the soda companies have at least fixed their “serving size” problem on cans. Maybe not the 20oz bottles, but at least you can re-seal those, so drinking half the bottle could be considered a serving. A can can’t be resealed, so it makes sense that 1 can = 1 serving. Same with your burrito. You couldn’t reseal half of the thing and I doubt it’s indicated what is “half”.

    This blatant deception kinda makes my blood boil because there’s no reason for it. Companies see this as a way to “market” their products, but they make their products “less useful” when the information is hard to interpret. I almost feel that this is half the reason why people spend extra money at places like Whole Foods. My hypothesis is that the companies that can sell in Whole Foods might have more honest labeling, thus people will more willingly give their money, even if it’s more, to companies they want to encourage. Vote with their dollars, in a sense.

  2. I have just checked some of my food labelling. The serving sizes all seemed about one half (or even less) of what I would consider a normal size, but they also had the amount of calories, fat, protin, carbohydrates, etc. per 100g which is what I would normally check if comparing products.
    There were also some labels that were too small to read without a magnifying glass, but as a general rule these are the products you would not eat if you were concerned about your diet.

  3. I think you are being too hard on Chex Mix. While it isn’t a potato chip, it is sold on the same shelves as chips and other snacks.

    At a Subway, for instance, there is a rack that contains 1.5 ounce bags of Doritos (made of corn), various chips (potato), and “Sun Chips” (multigrain). Like Chex Mix, Sun Chips advertize as 40% less fat. Compared directly with its immediate neighbors, this is a true statement. The corn and potato chips will have 8-10 grams, the Sun Chips 4-6 grams.

    On supermarket shelves, it is the same thing. All items in the chips aisle have nominally the same (low) nutritional content. Advertizing 40% or 60% less fat than comparable snack foods in the immediate vicinity is an honest and arguably helpful statement.

    • Sun Chips get a pass, because it is indeed an alternate chip. Chex Mix isn’t a chip by any stretch of the imagination. It is closer to pretzels, but pretzels have almost no fat. I don’t know who made the rule that it is ethical to compare your product with anything near it on the shelf, but whoever it was, he or she was confused.

  4. This reminds me of an experience I had at a local Big Lots store. I had seen their ad, which indicated that select headphones were fifty percent off. Since I have somehow destroyed every pair of headphones I’ve owned, I was in the market for that item and I figured that taking the price from twenty dollars down to ten dollars changed it from unaffordable to barely affordable to me. So I went there and searched their shelves but could find no indication of which ones were on sale. I took the one’s I thought might be and had them scanned at the front of the store, and when that turned out to be wrong I asked which ones were indicated by the ad. By turns, every employee squinted at the picture next to the “save 50%” label, scoured the shelves, and turned the search over to someone else until finally a manager explained to me that none of the headphones were on sale, and that when the ad proclaimed that their price was fifty percent lower, it just meant they were fifty percent less expensive than what you would pay at another store. I have not been back since.

    My thought process was about the same as yours with the Chex Mix. Fifty percent less than what other store? For every item they want to advertise, can they just send somebody out to find the absolute highest price tag just so they can say they’re not technically lying when they don’t change their prices yet still mark them as fifty, sixty, seventy-fiver percent off? For that matter, can I start selling a product and advertise it as being five thousand percent off (of what you would pay if it was imported from the moon)? Maybe this is why Dominos wanted to open that lunar franchise.

    And I just realized that this is the same crappy trick employed by all those annoying infomercials I’ve seen since I was a kid. “Buy now and we’ll throw in a limited edition, premium, waterproof combination cell phone charger and apple corer – a thirty-eight dollar value, yours for only 19.95!” A thirty-eight dollar value according to whom? Evidently not the people who set your prices, unless you’re honestly telling the customer that when he calls in he enjoys a net gain of eighteen dollars.

    Oh God, I don’t know who to be angrier at: retailers who employ these tactics or customers who fall for them not because they’re in a hurry but because they actually expect to be told whatever they want to hear.

  5. The one it pisses me off is the Ben and Jerry’s pints of ice cream where they say its 2 servings . Who the hell eats half a pint of ice cream?

    And don’t even get me on Turkey bacon …..

  6. I agree that the “60% Less Fat” label should address the :: less than what ?? :: question in the same big font —– THIS would be honest and more helpful.

    Also, akin to this topic which not only bothers me, but has now almost completely altogether REPLACED a natural substance with POISON !!! — And they advertise it as “Sugar Free”.

    Aspartame, Sucralose, Saccharin, and so forth —- I don’t care how many studies are done — an artificial substitution for sugar is not as healthy as sugar itself. The fact this has been pushed into Gum, Drinks, etc, (virtually unavoidable), is insane — Upon further inspection, you will find that these chemical substitutions are cheaper to use — which is the bottom line. They do not care about how healthy the product is, only how cheap it is so they can maximize on profit by spending less to make more, and charge more.

    And whats worse — these “sugar substitutes”, is while venturing through the gum isle looking for SUGAR’d gum was akin to finding a needle tip in a jungle —- I thought — ALAS … I found one…. “Wrigly’s Big Red — Slim Pack”. On a brief inspection of the ingredients, the first one was Sugar…. so I bought it chewed a piece and then read again —– I was tricked !! …. Yes, Sugar was the first ingredient — the usual position of Aspartame and the likes….. but whats this :::: Aspartame-Acesulfame !!! Ingredient #7 . —- Now…. If this is a sugar substitute (as popularly claimed) — why is it in gum which has “SUGAR” as ingredient #1 .


    We have no control over our food — or our planet anymore ! The reason why most people eat more, is because they need to in order for their body to obtain the necessary amount of nutrition to think, and to feel good/healthy. It is unfortunate, that in the process, this is virtually impossible without consuming loads of other garbage in the process. A nice example would be above — I would hardly consider that tiny 1/2 portion burrito would contain the necessary nutrients to sustain a grown man for more than the energy burnt while preparing it (walking to the microwave, fighting with the wrapper, buying in the store, bringing it home, chewing, etc.) — let alone give any additional energy.

    Jack: For the table, please let us know what you ate after the baby sized portion which could only be described as a fattening pittance of a partial snack.

    • The reason sugar is usually first and artificial sweeteners are usually near the end of an ingredient list is that artificial sweeteners are hundreds if not thousands of times sweeter than sugar. Where a stick of gum may have a gram of sugar it would only need a milligram (0.001 grams) of the artificial sweetener.

      • You completely missed the point. What is an Artificial sweetener (a sugar substitute) doing in a product where Sugar is the main ingredient.

        Further, I do not see any reason to use this poison in the first place, outside of they only care about COST: And since these deadly chemicals cost less — they push them more. Instead, they could use NATURAL sugar alternatives like Honey, Molasses, Maple Syrup, Fruit Juice, Barley Malt Syrup, Brown Rice Syrup, Date Sugar, Coconut Sugar, and so on.

        Aspartame has been linked to just about every health condition known, from seizures to brain tumors. Some epileptic patients have recovered from their condition simply from the elimination of this toxin from their diets. It is found in diet foods, diet drinks and sugar-free products as an alternative to sugar. Aspartame is a cure that remains worse than the disease. Aspartame is an excitotoxin, which means that it over-excites the neurons in the brain, until they burn out, causing lowered intelligence and a host of neurological problems.

        B.H.T. is a preservative which has been linked to cancer, and is banned in the United Kingdom and Japan. It is unbelievably sold as a “dietary supplement”, and some people believe that it has anti-viral effects. So does gasoline and rat poison for that matter. We do not recommend it, because of the safety implications. It causes kidney and liver damage. Benjamin Feingold (creator of the ‘Feingold diet’) linked it to hyperactivity in children in the 1970’s, as a large component of A.D.H.D..

        And so on ….. the point that these corporations that manipulate our food by pulling out vital nutrients and injecting poisons is something that happens every day. Product gets smaller, less nutritious, claims that it’s “better” or misleading advertising like “60% Less Fat”, having little to no nutritional value what-so-ever, the end result is people who eat a lot, that are mal-nourished. — why is that ? —- I am convinced this comes down to population control. Also, if people get sick, who makes money —- FDA — (why would they combine FOOD AND DRUGS into a single association) — They make money from the food, and they make more from the chemicals. Poison the food, make people sick, they then rely on chemicals (and additives like Vitamin Pills and such).

        On the “sugar-free” topic, their main argument is to help people lose weight, and for diabetics —- Yet, if Aspartame/etc breaks down and does the same thing — would that not still affect diabetics the same way as sugar ? — Further, If this is for fat people and diabetics, why does it consume over 90% of the candy shelves ?; Surely fat people and Diabetics do not make up 90% of the population or candy purchases ?

        And lastly, this is from the ingredients they DO list — what about the ones they disguise (or don’t list at all) that no one really knows, such as “Gum Base” —

        Just food for thought ! Remember, you are what you eat !

        • I did not miss your point nor did lack understanding of the issues you address. Ingredients are listed on the labels in rank order by % of mass composition. I was simply trying to educate as to why Aspartame does not simply replace sugar on the ingredients list.

          Everything else, I agree with you 1000%!

          • I fully comprehend the reasoning behind placement of ingredients (order), however most items that contain a sugar substitute, do not contain sugar at all — and usually is one of the top 4 (sometimes around 5) ingredients that comprise the product. This product was not marked as having such a contaminant (although GUM is hardly good for you, Aspartame makes it much worse). Similarity (in Canada !!), I can not find anywhere to buy Red Delicious apples that do not look and feel like they belong in a plastic fruit tray.

            • Then don’t buy red delicious apples. Or, more importantly, don’t buy apples based on them looking pretty. That’s why we have pretty looking, crappy tasting fruits and vegetables (like Roma tomatoes).

              As for why the gum would have sugar and aspartame, might their be some chemical or physical property of the aspartame that makes is bond longer to the gum for lengthened flavor/sweetness? That’s what I’d suspect.

  7. When they give you a list of vitamins and minerals in the product and say they are x% of daily needed, they mean that it is just enough to keep you from gettin sick. Just enough vitamin c to keep you from getting scurvy.

  8. Ultimately this issue is a confluence of scientific and mathematical illiteracy and a “profit at any cost” business climate. This makes the discussion of how to address it quite interesting.

    • Is it an education issue? We need better education for science and math so people can make informed purchasing decisions?
    • Is it an ethical issue for businesses? We need better ethics education for business leaders so they don’t mislead the public?
    • Is it a government regulatory issue? We need government regulations that consider what’s best for businesses AND citizens not businesses instead of citizens?

    …. or do we just point and laugh at the people drinking flame retardants in the Mt. Dew…

    • 1. No one has time to examine detailed labels with every purchase. They should be able to trust the product to be transparent about what it is.
      2. Training has nothing to do with it. They know they are deceiving the public. That’s their intent. Sellers have always tried to deceive buyers.
      3. Regulations barely slow up the unethical sellers, and unfairly burden the ethical ones.

      The solution is for consumers to learn to stop tolerating unethical practices, by refusing to purchase from those who engage in them, no matter how much they may like their products. Just like with politicians

      • If consumers don’t get more educated, if businesses don’t get more ethical, and/or if the government doesn’t regulate more, the how exactly do we get to the point where we can identify, stop, and or penalize unethical practices? You can’t stop tolerating something if you can’t identify it.

          • You flagged it, but consumers as a group don’t, and without consumers as a group noticing and doing something about it, it won’t be changed.

              • No, we don’t agree. I was pointing out how your singular didn’t meet the plural required. To me, Eric’s argument was “consumers, businesses, or regulators”. You tried to point to hit the consumers option already is met. I pointed out how you failed.

                I tried not to take a position on which should be done.

                • Eric didn’t say “consumers,” he said “consumer education,” which implies a third party, government, non-profits, educating them. Consumers, as in each consumer, have the responsibility to educate themselves and be responsible and informed. You disagree with THAT?

                  • The problem is I fell into my professional world and assumptions without communicating those assumptions explicitly in my post. When I say “education” I view the student and teacher as part of a team with shared responsibilities in the learning process.

                    So, Jack, my first bullet above was meant to convey responsibility of the consumer to apply their knowledge so they can identify and avoid unethical companies and products but also to express that there is a responsibility of the educational system (I”m taking a very broad definition of educational system here) to ensure students have the skills and abilities to identify the unethical behavior in the first place.

                    Basically, I don’t see there being much sunlight between you, tgt, and I on this issue.

  9. You know, after about the third time reading your article I want to kick myself for not being more careful in reading labels. I say myself because I’ve already had some experience with the serving size idiocy — but didn’t extrapolate it out to other products.

    I do all the grocery shopping for my two sisters and me (we each have our areas of expertise), so I’ve compared many a label over the years. Admittedly it is often not so much a quest for the finest nutrition as it is for hidden meat ingredients that would not be suitable for the vegetarian sister (you would be astounded at just how many innocent appearing foods actually have some meat in them — vegetable soup, for example).

    At any rate, I discovered one day that for almost all regular microwave popcorn there are supposedly 2 or 3 servings per bag. I suppose that, in theory, if you had say a person born without sin, that such a person could open a bag of popcorn and only eat a third of it. And, of course, you then probably have to toss out the rest of the bag since it likely will not be fit to eat the next day (just how would one ‘reheat’ old (stale) popcorn?).

    The next person I meet with this capability will be the first. And would that then be a sign of the coming Apocalypse? But I digress. Popcorn makers also have these nifty varieties that are marked ‘100 calories per bag’. Well, upon further review it turns out that this is achieved by making the bags much smaller than the regular popcorn bags, so that 1 bag is actually 1 serving!!!!!!! Of course, if you popped as much of the 100 calorie popcorn as you would have in a single bag of the regular popcorn you would have much more than 100 calories. And if it turns out that the typical serving size in your household is actually 2 bags of the 100 calorie stuff — well, why not just get the regular popcorn and be done with it?

    Ok, so I knew all this stuff already and can shop for popcorn with an opened eye, even if I am ticked off at the popcorn companies for this sort of chicanery.

    Why, oh why did it never connect in my brain to extrapolate from the popcorn aisle to the frozen food aisle? I merely assumed that a small package of diet XXX which was marked, say, 220 calories 5g fat in big letters on the package meant that that was for the whole package. I look at a package containing one vegetarian burrito (sound familiar?) and assume the calories are for a single serving. Perhaps they are. Perhaps my innocence has not been misplaced.

    But, now that my eyes have been opened I am not willing to bet my mortgage on it, or even my keyboard.

    Really, I could kick myself. I should have known better. I will in the future — at least for a good while.

    But . . . . . . . . if we could take those label designers out behind the building where I happened to know there is a perfectly serviceable wall …………

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