Why That Nutritional Label Might Not Be As Useful As You Think

Food science is cool and all, but it doesn't know everything. Including how many calories are in that snack pack.

Feb 6, 2013 at 2:30pm | Leave a comment

As much as I have issues with food (read: an eating disorder), I do find food science fascinating. It's one of those fields that isn't very glamorous (physics is SEXY) when you're talking to folks at a party, but it touches on something incredibly fundamental. After all, if we don't eat, we die.

The science behind food (as we think of it today) is actually a relatively new thing for people to study. And the earliest developments (let's call it the early 1800s for the purposes of this not turning into a dissertation), such as canning processes and pasteurization, were primarily applicable to food preservation. Keeping food from spoiling was a big deal -- inventing bacteriology (shout out to Louis Pasteur) was an unforeseen benefit.

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I have no idea how many calories were in that sweet potato and goat cheese empanada but it was delicious.

1906 saw both the publication of Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" (a functional expose of slaughterhouse operations that made people think about things they would rather not think about) and the founding of the US Food and Drug Administration. But it wasn't until the 1930s that there were enough people involved in food science to hold a conference (and who doesn't love a good research conference?).

I bring this up not because I want you all to be interested in the things in which I am interested -- I promise -- but because people are finally figuring out that those nutrition labels may not actually be all that accurate.

It's not a result of bad math or forgotten conversions to metric. It's that food, no matter how much our culture wants it to be, is not actually made of regular caloric building blocks -- and digestion is not a simple process.

While fat haters often crow about calories-in-calories-out, the truth of how people process the food they have eaten is far more complex. Of course we're all familiar with metabolism. But we rarely talk about the calories we poop right out because our bodies are not capable of digesting them.

The bacteria in our guts can also consume calories. And if you've ever noticed an increase in your temperature as you've digested a meal, you've actually noticed another way in which we lose calories from the food we've eaten.

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How many calories are in a strawberry white chocolate chip cookie? I don't care.

Those are all contributing factors to nutrition labels being inaccurate. But what the study only seems to touch on, by acknowledging that processed foods seem to have more calories that we successfully take in, is that there is a world of difference between processed foods and whole foods.

Stick with me here -- because I'm not a food moralist. I don't think that there are "good" foods and "bad" foods; I do think that people's food choices are highly personal and often influenced by factors beyond their control. We need food to live. Processed foods are not, by that definition, "bad." Whole foods are not inherently morally "good" either. 

But they are worth discussing -- if only because processed foods are the result of food science and their nutritional information is what we're the most accurate at estimating. Pre-packaged diet foods are, for many dieters, super appealing in large part because they are so easy and convenient. Which is what they have been explicitly designed to be.

But food science has yet to replicate the actual nutritional profile of whole food -- which is why there is a breast milk versus formula debate in the first place. Our current understanding of how food and nutrition is structured is not anywhere near complete. So processed foods, while ostensibly giving us what we think we need from food, are still not really comparable.

The conversation gets even more complicated when we look at factory farming (both of vegetables and animals). There are huge ethical issues involved in large-scale food production operations (food ethics are distinct from food morals), but there's also a simple nutritional consequence. When we breed and cross-breed for high yield and quick maturation, what we wind up with is often less nutritionally dense.

That's completely separate from the flavor arguments that people make.

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Preparing whole foods often means estimates are even more skewed. But this Thai-style snapper over rice was high in awesomeness.

When we talk about food ethics, we also have to talk about class and capitalism. White bread is a phenomenal starting place -- 100 years ago, white bread was the height of food science and it made significant strides in the fight against malnutrition. Now? Now it's trashy and health snobs snub it.

So we aren't eating in a vacuum. And maybe we don't know as much as we thought we did when it comes to those now-ubiquitous nutrition labels. But what does any of it actually mean?

Some researchers are saying, effectively, that it's close enough for horseshoes and hand grenades. Since most nutrition labels are overestimating calorie count, it's only a concern for people who need to gain weight. 

That's one theory. But we live in a culture that is fixated on dieting. There are so many people operating on what food science (oh, fickle mistress) has determined to be a minimum threshold for caloric intake. In these cases, underestimating might be putting people below their personal minimal intake requirements. Do we really need to revisit the results of the Minnesota Starvation Experiment to know why this might be bad? (This sort of thing is what happens when food science and less-regulated human testing get together over drinks.)

It's just that there's some potentially dangerous irony in the idea that dieting feels like starving because it is, quite literally, starving.

Other researchers make the case that the goal of science is, in fact, accurate information. And so maybe we should actually be concerned about the nutritional misrepresentation going on. I tend to fall on this side of the fence, as much as nutrition labels trigger the hell out of me, because if people are going to make decisions based on that information, that information should be correct.

The whole discussion is an excellent reminder that, as much as we think we know, we still don't know everything. Food and the way we digest it and convert it into energy isn't as simple as a mathematical equation (in as much as math is ever simple). That's actually really fantastic, I think -- it means there is so much more to know.